Even as a boy, he loved to build things.
As a youngster growing up in Pakistan, Rashid Bashir enjoyed putting together transistor radios from kits. It's just one of the ways the budding engineer was inspired by his free-thinking father, who used everything from computers to Star Wars movies to engage his children's minds.
"My Dad was an out-of-the-box thinker who encouraged us into science and technology very early," recalls Bashir, who needed little arm-twisting.
His parents were so inspired by a visit to the U.S. in the 1970s, they sent 16-year-old Rashid and his brother to America to complete their education in the 1980s.
Says Bashir: "They fell in love with the philosophy here — the freedom and opportunity to control your destiny and make a difference in the world."
His own destiny took a profound turn as Bashir neared the end of his graduate studies in electrical engineering at Purdue.
"During my last semester, I took two biology courses and got really excited about the applications of engineering in biology," says Bashir, an AAAS Fellow.
After graduation, he continued to feed his growing appetite for biology, taking night classes in the natural sciences while working in silicon chip design at National Semiconductor.
Today, as Professor of Bioengineering and Director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, Bashir explores — and expands — the crossroads of engineering and medicine.
"I think bioengineers are always trying to understand and mimic biology," says Bashir.
And maybe even go nature one better.
At the center for Emerging Behavior in Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS), where Bashir is a project lead, the goal is to build biological robots (or "bio-bots") with specific functionality — movement, for example. This NSF-funded Science and Technology Center is a cross-campus research effort between the University of Illinois, MIT, Georgia Tech, and partner institutions.
"The idea is to forward-engineer biological machines with cells," says Bashir. "Engineers have always designed with wood, metal and concrete — but can we also build with biology?"
It appears that they can.
In 2012, Bashir's team built a self-propelled bio-bot using heart cells from a rat, hydrogel, and polymer scaffolding made with a 3-D printer. Ranging from a half to one centimeter in length, the bio-bots resemble a downward-curving diving board, with a broad base supporting a longer leg at one end. Smaller than a sugar cube, these miniscule machines represent a sweet success for the world of bioengineering.
At the heart of that success are those somewhat mysterious cardiac cells. After they are extracted from the rat and kept in the proper environment for a few days, the heart cells begin to beat entirely on their own.
"We use those beating properties as the engine of this bio-bot. As the cells beat spontaneously, the structure moves in one direction," says Bashir.
And one small step by this bio-bot may prove to be one giant leap for science.
"Even at this scale, they could be in water supplies," says Bashir, who envisions applications in medicine, agriculture and the environment.
And if the bio-bots can be scaled down even further, they might one day be put to use inside the human body — perhaps to detect or destroy cancer cells or in other therapeutic applications.
By tinkering with size and cell type, the EBIC team hopes to create bio-bots with additional functionality. For example, the miniscule machines might one day be able to sense a harmful toxin, move toward it and neutralize it. As Bashir says, "The possibilities are endless."
Endless, too, is the inspiration Bashir finds in nature — from the super-sensitive sniffers on drug-detecting dogs to the wonders of photosynthesis.
"A biological system has tremendous characteristics that engineering cannot replicate," says Bashir. "Can we learn, understand and harness that?"
He is equally intrigued with harnessing "lab-on-a-chip" technology for medical diagnostics.
Like the current model for diabetes management — where patients can easily test their own blood sugar using a small strip — Bashir hopes to develop small, chip-based sensors that can quickly, accurately and cheaply diagnose cancer or HIV, for example, or detect bacterial pathogens in water supplies.
Far from any ivory tower, practicality is the common ground for all of Bashir's work.
"I like every project to have a very direct clinical outcome," says Bashir, whose philosophy has led to 34 patents and two startup companies.
That down-to-earth pragmatism — and passion for interdisciplinary research — offers meaningful opportunities to make a difference in the world.
But along with those opportunities come ethical questions.
"You're working with living cells and making machines that mimic living things ... How do you approach that? How far do you go?" he asks. "Like so many things in life, it's not black-and white — there are shades of gray."