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Alumnus donates $6.5 million to UIC bioengineering department

Updated: September 12, 2013 6:05PM

A South Side native’s $6.5 million donation to the University of Illinois at Chicago bioengineering department will fund new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases by applying engineering to the field of medicine.

Bioengineering principles can bring about groundbreaking ways of doing stem-cell research and designing skin grafts, new organs and new DNA structures to fight cancer, said Rick Hill, 61, retired CEO of computer-chip manufacturing equipment company Novellus Inc., whose donation is the largest ever given to the bioengineering department.

Hill is a 1974 UIC bioengineering alumnus who grew up on Chicago’s South Side and in south suburban Blue Island. He worked his way through college at summer jobs in steel mills, at a canning company and at Superior Match Company and the Ford stamping plant in Chicago Heights.

“These are huge economic opportunities,” Hill said of the research his donation will enable. “UIC is a great jewel of the University of Illinois system. It is ideally located to allow collaboration between industry and the university to make these kinds of significant advances.”

Hill and his wife, Loan, donated the $6.5 million on top of their earlier $2.3 million donation to UIC to recognize the bioengineering department’s role in Rick Hill’s career and to encourage researchers to explore new ideas. The bioengineering department is run jointly by UIC’s colleges of engineering and medicine.

Hill serves on the UIC College of Engineering’s advisory board and previously was chairman of the University of Illinois Foundation, the school’s fundraising organization.

Hill said his bioengineering studies in the early 1970s gave him the resources to escape the “force field” of the South Side and achieve success.

“Life has been very good to me,” said Hill, who retired after selling San Jose, Calif.-based Novellus to Lam Research Corp. of Fremont, Calif., for $3.3 billion in December 2011. “I always feel like giving back.”

On Thursday, the university’s board of directors honored the Hills by naming the UIC bioengineering department after them — the first time a department at UIC has been named for anyone.

Dr. Dimitri Azar, dean of the UIC College of Medicine, said the donation will be “transformative” in allowing the department to create new cures for diseases that require engineering approaches.

The cures could provide new ways of diagnosing and treating illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart, vision and hearing heart problems, Azar said.

Peter C. Nelson, dean of engineering, said the research will “make UIC a premier center of activity for research and education at the intersection of engineering and medicine.”

Hill, who worked at the Western Blueprint Factory at 59th and Western starting when he was in the seventh grade to pay tuition to attend Brother Rice High School, said he would also like to see UIC start night classes for engineers.

The UIC bioengineering department has already expanded by hiring six new faculty members in the past two years.

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