The Best and the Brightest

Endowed chairs attract top researchers and scholars to Baylor. Many of these positions are made possible by the generosity of the Baylor Family through the Give Light Campaign.

The Best and the Brightest

The “best and the brightest.” A simple concept that explains a much richer, more complex idea. At Baylor University, when we talk about the students and faculty drawn here, we use these superlatives to communicate worth or potential.

Some students shine brightly, sitting atop a mountain of accomplishments and test scores — clear indicators of acumen and performance. But what about the students whose passions have been ignited and who need mentoring and a good bit of polishing to shine brighter than even they could imagine?

“When you select a student, some of them may not seem to be perfect in the beginning,” said Alan Wang, Ph.D., holder of the Mearse Endowed Chair in Biological and Biomedical Engineering in the School of Engineering and Computer Science. “When I was in Oregon, I would go to the rockhounding sites and find a stone — you decide whether it’s a jasper or just a regular stone by cracking it open, seeing what is the pattern, color and quality. Then you polish it, and it then becomes a shining stone, a precious stone. So, in selecting a student, you interview to see if you have that feeling that they have the potential to fly, and then you just need to have the confidence, to have faith, and polish the student, improve them, and eventually, they can be precious.”

Wang joined the faculty in Baylor’s School of Engineering and Computer Science in the fall of 2022 after 11 years at Oregon State University. He has been busy in his first year — moving with his wife, Jin, and 11-year-old son, Remington, to Waco, setting up his research spaces, and selecting graduate students. Recognized as a leading researcher in photonic materials and devices research, Wang has already attracted promising students to Baylor. He is finding his stones.

Wei-Che Hsu, Ph.D. student; Sudipta Biswas; and Dr. Alan Wang in one of Wang’s labs looking and Hsu’s research on silicon-TCO integrated photonic devices.
Wei-Che Hsu, Ph.D. student; Sudipta Biswas; and Dr. Alan Wang in one of Wang’s labs looking and Hsu’s research on silicon-TCO integrated photonic devices.

First-year doctoral candidate Sudipta Biswas readily admits that he is the rock in Dr. Wang’s analogy. He was never a “studious student,” but when he discovered a deep interest in photonics as an undergraduate at North South University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he found himself so captivated by the field that he took the limited classes available to him and pushed forward with independent studies, ultimately graduating with his bachelor of science degree in electrical and electronics engineering.

Much to the shock of his parents, Biswas decided to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering, concentrating on photonics — a field of study not available in his home country of Bangladesh. Rather than going to Qatar, where his parents live, he chose to look at American universities. 

“The main reason I chose Baylor was Dr. Wang,” Biswas said. “Although a research facility is a very important factor, your Ph.D. supervisor is the most important. I looked him up and saw he was joining Baylor, and that’s what brought me here.”

After a rushed and stress-filled push to acquire his visa and move to Texas, Biswas has enjoyed settling into Waco — his home for at least the next five years while he works with Wang on plasmonic metasurfaces.

“One example of a plasmonic material would be gold; metasurfaces made of such materials can control and manipulate light impossible with conventional optics,” Biswas explained. “If I want to go into the applications for my research, the easiest way to put it is that it can be used in optical fibers, solar cells, biomedical imaging, even antennae and lasers. My goal is to get into nano-device fabrication.”

Biswas is one of seven researchers — a mix of undergraduate and graduate students and a post-doctoral research associate — working on a variety of projects under Wang’s watchful eye. 

Wang’s projects include working with NASA investigating the electrically tunable optical filters for viewing different light wavelengths that can be used for satellite imaging. Another effort involves working with Intel on a photonic integrated circuit chip for high speed, high bandwidth communication, widening the information highway and making advances possible in everything from high performance computing to immense data storage. He also holds patents for biosensors that use photonic crystal materials for surface-enhanced Raman scattering to achieve preeminent sensitivity and cost-effectiveness. The device could enhance the detection of cardiovascular biomarkers, toxicants in food, water pollution or drug residues.

But why leave Oregon State and come to Baylor?

“There are multiple reasons,” Wang says with a smile. “The first one is that Baylor is a Christian university, and I’m a Christian. I really enjoy teaching and doing research in a Christian environment where most of your colleagues are Christian, and you can freely preach the gospel to the students and in teaching.”

“The second reason is because of the Mearse Endowed Chair. An endowed chair is a big promotion for a faculty member because, in each university, there are only a small number of faculty who can hold an endowed chair position. So this is a big promotion for my career as faculty.”

The Mearse Chair, established in 2019 by Bill, B.B.A. ’78, M.B.A. ’79, and Tanya Mearse of Houston, provides annual support for Wang, as well as funding for his research. During a tour of his laboratory, Wang spoke fondly of the new instrumentation and research opportunities the Mearse Chair provided. The Mearse Chair is part of the Foster Academic Challenge, aimed at increasing support through donor gifts for faculty whose research falls within the research priorities of Illuminate, the University’s strategic plan.

Wang said Baylor’s support of research, through funding and spaces like the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaboration (BRIC), as well as the University’s institutional focus on materials science and health, indicated significant support of his areas of scholarship.

While research is his passion, Wang said he is looking forward to adding more teaching to his course load. In Fall 2023, he will teach some first-year engineering classes, and he is excited to recruit more undergraduates for research and mentorship opportunities.

For Biswas, the mentoring has been worth the 8,500-mile move.

“He’s probably the best I could wish for,” Biswas said. “An advisor is more of a father, if you want to put it that way. He guides me in the way I should work, and he pushes me and is guiding me to put me on the path that will take me somewhere. As I am learning from him, I realize that he’s here for a reason.”

When establishing the Mearse Chair, Bill and Tanya Mearse gave to support faculty and students through the Give Light Campaign, Baylor’s $1.1 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign to support the priorities of Illuminate. As the Mearse Chair’s inaugural holder, Wang speaks of teaching, research and his students in terms of legacy.

“I enjoy talking with the students, teaching students new things in class and also mentoring graduate students,” Wang said. “I believe that’s part of our faculty life to not only do research, but also working with students. And, actually, if you think about the legacy of your career … papers and the research outcomes are important, but students are also equally important.”

Wang is polishing rocks to become precious stones.

“The steps I had to take to get here were not easy,” Biswas said. “But I believe I have a long way to go, because I have a long-term plan for my country. If I am able to get done with my Ph.D. here, I wish to establish a research institute in my country someday. As an engineer or someone working in photonics in Bangladesh, I did not have the facilities that I needed. I hope to establish a research institute in my country so that others have what they need.”

A legacy of impact, indeed.