Major gift from Gilbert Omenn ’61 and Martha Darling *70 names bioengineering institute

Written by
Advancement Communications
July 18, 2023

Alumni Gilbert Omenn ’61 and Martha Darling *70 have made a transformational gift, as part of the Venture Forward campaign, to name a new bioengineering institute at Princeton University. The Omenn-Darling Bioengineering Institute will promote new directions in research, education and innovation at the intersection of engineering and the life sciences while serving as the home for new interdisciplinary bioengineering postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate programs.  

“This extraordinary gift from Gil Omenn and Martha Darling will accelerate bioengineering innovation to address some of the 21st century’s most critical challenges,” said President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83. “Given Gil and Martha’s exceptional leadership and their scientific and policy achievements, it is especially fitting that the Omenn-Darling Bioengineering Institute will be named for them. This new institute will amplify the University’s strengths at the intersection of engineering, machine learning, public policy, and natural sciences, with interdisciplinary collaboration yielding significant benefits to human health and the environment. I am deeply grateful to them both for their vision and friendship.” 

Bioengineering research at Princeton is an interdisciplinary endeavor. The Omenn-Darling Bioengineering Institute will include a team of core faculty members and will also convene affiliated faculty from across campus. The current Princeton Bioengineering Initiative, which launched in 2020, has involved faculty from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the departments of molecular biology, physics, chemistry, and ecology and evolutionary biology.  

The Bioengineering Initiative has been led by Cliff Brangwynne, the June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. His research has changed how scientists understand cellular organization by linking biology with materials science and engineering, leading to foundational insights about cell functions and suggesting new ways to treat diseases such as cancers, ALS and Alzheimer’s. He has earned many accolades for his work, including being named a MacArthur Fellow, a Sloan Fellow and a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. 

“Gil and Martha recognize that Princeton must play a leading role in bioengineering, one of the most important fields for humanity this century,” Brangwynne said. “Their fantastic gift will have a major impact on Princeton students and faculty for generations to come.”  

The Omenn-Darling Bioengineering Institute will be housed in the new environmental sciences and engineering neighborhood, scheduled to be completed in 2025, and will expand research already underway in the Bioengineering Initiative. The Institute’s main areas of focus will be cellular engineering, biomedical instruments and devices, and computational bioengineering. An important part of its work will be to bolster innovation and entrepreneurship as well as ties to the region’s biotech and pharmaceutical industries.  

The married couple’s support of the University’s strategic initiative in bioengineering includes an earlier gift: The Gilbert S. Omenn  ’61, M.D, Ph.D. and Martha A. Darling *70 Fund for Grand Challenges was announced in September 2021, supporting initiatives in biology and engineering. 

“Supporting Cliff Brangwynne and other Princeton researchers with the Grand Challenges fund in bioengineering really captured our imagination,” said Omenn. “The more that is learned in this field, the more we realize we have yet to understand, a common experience. This is an exciting area, where new technologies, basic biology, and chemistry, physics, mathematics and computational sciences all need to be brought together. This emerging institute will do exactly that.” 

The Omenn-Darling Bioengineering Institute will promote collaboration across disciplines, bringing together scholars and researchers who are exploring experimental and computational methods as well as the ethical and public policy implications of new ideas and technologies. 

“Pairing biology and engineering together is very intriguing to us, especially because of Gil’s professional contributions in the fields of computational medicine and bioinformatics,” Darling said. “In addition, Princeton is uniquely positioned to highlight in-depth exploration of the ethical and policy implications of this rapidly evolving field. Princeton faculty are very aware of the larger societal context that is involved in some of these technological breakthroughs.” 

“The Omenn-Darling Bioengineering Institute will accelerate Princeton’s leadership at the forefront of this exciting engineering frontier, with unlimited potential for positive impact on health, medicine and quality of life,” said Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Arthur LeGrand Doty Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “The institute will bring together the most innovative faculty and students in the field and provide them with the foundation needed to enable transformative research and teaching. With its world-class faculty across relevant areas and its robust culture of interdisciplinary collaboration, Princeton is now well-poised to shape the trajectory of bioengineering long into the future.” 

Darling, who graduated from Reed College, was one of the first female graduate students at what is now Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), earning a master of public affairs degree in 1970. She worked in senior leadership at Boeing and served in numerous national and state policy roles. As a White House Fellow, she served as executive assistant to Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal *53 *56, and then became senior legislative aide to U.S. Senator Bill Bradley ’65. She was a member of the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, served as a trustee of Reed College, and held leadership roles with the Maverick Collective, the Sphinx Organization and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. She is on the board of directors of the Salzburg Global Seminar and is chair of the National Wildlife Federation Action Fund. In 2016, she was honored by the National Wildlife Federation with its National Conservation Achievement Award.   

Omenn, who is the Harold T. Shapiro Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan, has had a notable career as a physician, biomedical and public health researcher, and academic leader. He earned his medical degree from Harvard University and earned his Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Washington, where he became dean of its school of public health from 1982 to 1997. From 1997 to 2002, he was CEO of the University of Michigan Health System. He has been director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics since its founding in 2005.  

Omenn has been a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and served in national policy roles as a White House Fellow in the Nixon and Ford administrations and as associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and then of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration. He was a longtime director of Amgen Inc. and of Rohm and Haas Company. Omenn is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Medicine, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Association of American Physicians. He chaired the global Human Proteome Project of the Human Proteome Organization, a collective effort to detect and characterize all of the proteins produced by the sequences translated from the human genome. Omenn serves on the boards of the Hastings Center for bioethics, the Center for Public Integrity, the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.  

Omenn and Darling have given previously to Princeton, including gifts for the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Program and to create the Gilbert S. Omenn Lectures in Science, Technology and Public Policy at SPIA. The Gilbert S. Omenn ’61, M.D., Ph.D. and Martha A. Darling *70 Fund for Grand Challenges in Bioengineering helped establish the Gilbert S. Omenn ’61, M.D., Ph.D. and Martha A. Darling *70 Postdoctoral Fellows Programs and the Gilbert S. Omenn ’61, M.D., Ph.D. and Martha A. Darling *70 Lecture on Ethics and Policy in Bioengineering. 

“We believe in investing in the best possible people you can: We need people with brilliance, determination and purpose in all fields,” Omenn said. “Princeton provides that. Plus, Princeton represents a deep, meaningful relationship for each of us. This gift is significant because it is from us together — Martha and me — to Princeton.”