Season 5 - Episode 539
Alan Wang brings a prolific record as a researcher and inventor to his role as the Mearse Chair in Biological and Biomedical Engineering at Baylor. Wang, who came to Baylor from Oregon State University, discusses the importance and uses of photonics in everyday life on this Baylor Connections, and unpacks inventions that impact health care, communication, environmental protection and more.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking with Alan Wang. Dr. Wang serves as the inaugural holder of the Mearse Chair in Biological and Biomedical Engineering in Baylor's School of Engineering and Computer Science. Dr. Wang, who came to Baylor from Oregon State University at the beginning of this school year, brings a prolific record as a researcher and inventor to the role, his expertise in photonic materials and devices, research features, applications for healthcare, communication, environmental protection, food safety and more. And he invented a device described by Science Daily as the world's smallest electro-optic modulator. And he is with us today on the program. Dr. Wang, thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you on Baylor Connections today.
Alan Wang:Thank you, Derek. Thank you for having me here.
Derek Smith:Well, let me ask you this. So you came to Baylor from Oregon State University, from the west coast here to Central Texas. How have the first few weeks here at Baylor treated you and your family?
Alan Wang:Actually, I'm not a stranger to Texas, because I lived in Texas for eight years. I graduated from UT Austin, and then I worked for a company in Austin for another four years, so it's kind of like coming back to home. So I really enjoyed the lovely environment of Baylor, and the colleagues and the staff here are really friendly and helpful. So we really enjoy being at Baylor as a family.
Derek Smith:What have you enjoyed most about being back here in Texas? Are there any specific Texan things that you're able to reconnect with?
Alan Wang:Oh, yeah. There's a lot of things I enjoy in Texas, like the barbecue food, and the church life here, which I really enjoyed in the time so far.
Derek Smith:Yeah, that's great. And you've got your family, how was the move? How old are your kids, and how has that been for them?
Alan Wang:Oh, it's a good move, and we actually ended up living in Archerfield, which is only a few minutes of walk from here. So all the neighbors are Baylor faculties, and we really enjoy living in the community. And my kid, so he goes to Live Oak Classical School, and he really loves the school and the teachers there. And he also enjoys the time with his classmates.
Derek Smith:That's great. So everyone's getting settled in good. That's a big move. Hopefully, the move went well, too.
Alan Wang:Yeah. It's busy, but it's good. It's a good move.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Allen Wang. And Dr. Wang, so you came to Baylor from Oregon State. In fact, you were the first of the endowed chairs that we announced through the Baylor Academic Challenge. Now, the Foster Academic Challenge. Let me ask you just to start right. Was it a hard decision? Was it an easy decision? A little bit of both. What was the decision like to leave Oregon State and come here?
Alan Wang:It's definitely a hard decision, because I worked and lived in Oregon State University for 11 years. I have a lot of good friends and colleagues there, and I developed a collaboration of research in the past 11 years, which means moving to Texas, so I have to leave those things behind. At least, the collaboration becomes more difficult with the colleagues at Oregon State University. But I'm also very looking forward to the career at a Baylor. Baylor is a very unique Christian University, probably it's the only R1 Christian University. So it's a unique thing that you can combine your research with your Christian faith, which is very attractive to me. And I'm really looking forward to that.
Derek Smith:Was that the biggest factor for you?
Alan Wang:Yeah. That's one of the biggest factor.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Alan Wang and Dr. Wang, you received one of the endowed chair positions, as we mentioned, the Mearse Chair in Biological and Biomedical Engineering. So let me ask you, first just talking about endowed chairs in general, not this specific one, but in general for people outside of higher ed, how can people understand why a position like that is so attractive?
Alan Wang:Yes, I think the endowed chair position represents the focus of the research of the university. So, basically, the university has a vision to develop the researcher direction in a certain field, and they hire the endowed, the chair position in this field. So for the people outside of higher education. So it means that if you have your children attending Baylor, so your children will have the opportunity to take the class in those folks, the areas. And also if your children are interested in research, he will have the opportunity to work with a professor, especially in the endowed chair professors to start their research career. So I think that's a really, really important for the university, for the parents of the students, to define their future research paths.
Derek Smith:And with that endowed chair position, leadership-wise, when we talk about biological, biomedical engineering, I know that's an area that we're growing. How does that provide opportunities for you to shape and partner and grow things?
Alan Wang:Yes. So my research is focused on photonic material and devices, but also with a lot of application in biomedical engineering, biological engineering. So this creates the research of inter-disciplined collaboration with faculty currently at Baylor. So I see a lot of collaboration with the faculty in a school of engineering and computer science as well as the faculty from the college of a science in physics or in the chemistry department. So I think this is a really, really important opportunity for me as well to further develop my research through the collaboration with the faculty at Baylor.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Alan Wang. And the answer may well be the same, but I'll ask specifically, this Mearse chair position. As you learned about it, what stood out? And then, I mean, did you have to investigate Baylor a little bit? What did that look like for you as you learned about it? And we're trying to figure out the factors beyond the fact that Baylor is an R1 Christian research university, what factors did you have to investigate to make sure the position in Baylor was right for you?
Alan Wang:Yeah, I think this is the way that I feel. It's a large leap for me to take this position, because I was not aware of this position when it was published. I was actually approached by my previous PhD advisor as well as my previous colleague who is now at a Baylor faculty. So they encouraged me to apply for this position. And after very careful consideration, and also praying with my family, I feel that this is the opportunity that the Lord may give me for the future career, which I can combine my Christian faith with my future career. So this is something I feel it's a Lord's lead, of course it involved a lot of praying, and also it's a hard decision, because if you, considering, I have established myself at OS, and now I need to move to Baylor, that's a hard decision. Personally, I feel that the church life in Texas is generally more active comparing with those at Oregon. And also, I have family members at Houston. So it's very clear that it is a hard move, but it is the way I should move.
Derek Smith:That's great. It's hard. Is it not, the least of which is, you weren't just moving your family. You moved your lab here.
Derek Smith:How arduous of a challenge is it to move your lab from Morgan to Texas?
Alan Wang:It takes a lot of work, and a lot of preparation, and the coordination, working with both Oregon State University and Baylor University. And I feel I was blessed during this process, because Oregon State University was very generous to allow me to move most of my equipment and most of my grant. And also, Baylor was very generous to cover all the expenses and provide all the help to move the equipment from OSU to Baylor. So I feel it is a busy process, but it's also a very blessed process, and I'm really grateful that Lord take care of all this process.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Alan Wang, inaugural holder of the Mearse Chair in Biological and Biomedical Engineering in Baylor's School of Engineering and Computer Science. So let's talk about your research here a little bit. We mentioned up at the top of the program, photonics, and used the word like electro-optic modulator, which for those of us not in science or engineering, those definitions can escape our bounds rather quickly. So let's talk about that, but as we do, I want to ask you this, your approach in photonics and looking at some of your inventions as we talked about healthcare, communications, environmental protections, food safety, those are things that are a little more accessible that we can see its impact. It seems to me we talk about illuminate some of the pillars that we have certainly are in material science, but it seems like it touches health, human flourishing, and more. How do you see the different pillars, some of these things Baylor is focusing on, converging in your work?
Alan Wang:Yes. So I feel that these five pillars, although they are in five different areas, but they are coherent. So they are supporting one common goal, is to improve our human life. So as you see for my research, and particularly for myself, I'm trained in photonic material and devices. I have been working in this field since I was a graduate student. From then to now, it's more than 20 years. I've always been working in photonic material and devices. Because I'm trained as an engineer, so the philosophy of my research is we want to use this photonic material and devices to solve the practical engineering challenges which can improve our human life, especially to improve the common fair, the health energy, and the way how we can be connected with each other. So as you can see, for the early days, photonics technology is a primary development to solve the challenges of optic communication, fiber optical, or network, because that's the backbone of the internet, because it's the freeway of the transportation system. So that's the way you can provide high bandwidth for long distance communication, and that we need every day for our communication. But photonics can do more than that, beside the communication, it can be used as optical sensors for healthcare. It can be used as a method for diagnosis for many diseases. So I feel that's a very interesting expansion of what I was doing in my PhD, which it primarily focused on optical communication. And since I became a faculty, I explored the application of technology in more broad areas, in healthcare, in energy, and in environmental protection. So I found this technology is very unique. For photonics or in the other world, it's light. So that's another simple meaning of the word light, because that's the first thing God created. So in Genesis one, God said that let there be light, and there was light. Photonics is light, so we can use the light to do many things. And it's a blessing, it's a gift from God.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Alan Wang. And are there any, I don't know if they're household items, but any common items that most of us might see, whether at a doctor's appointment or in a store or wherever, that we can envision to kind of picture what it is that you're talking about? You mentioned the internet, too. That's probably a ubiquitous one.
Alan Wang:Yes. Yes. Although we don't see those devices in our daily life, but they are working very hard behind the scenes. For example, in data centers, in high performance and computers, people are using optics, using photonics to transmit information, which is much higher bandwidth than the copper wire of the electrical signal. But in addition to that, if we go to the hospital, we are seeing more and more instrument or equipment based on optics. One example is the oxygen meter. So that's the equipment that you can detect the oxygen level in the blood in a non-invasive way. So it's a clip that clip to the finger, and it has a LED to shine the light through your skin and measure the color of your blood, and that corresponding to the oxygen level in your blood. So by this way, you can have a noninvasive real time monitoring of the auction level, which cannot be done by other methods. So that's just one example. But, of course, if we're considering, there are many more advanced photonic imaging technology like the coherent tomography, which can give you a high resolution imaging of the organs. So that really developed many powerful methods for cancer detection, for stomach disease detection. So that's basically the way how the photonic technology, especially the photonic instrument, can change the way of healthcare.
Derek Smith:Yeah. I think you've answered this, but I want to ask you specifically, photonics as opposed to other forms of measurement or transmission. What are the benefits of optics, and that seem to continually be growing?
Alan Wang:Yes. Yes. If we're comparing photonics with the traditional information electronics, the difference is photonics can provide you enormous amount of bandwidth, because photonics almost have no optical loss when it's coupled into optical fiber. But electronics, you always have only loss, which means you turn the energy of electronic into heat and then the energy is dissipated. You cannot send a high bandwidth information over a long distance with the electronic, because that's just intrinsic bottleneck of this type of particles. But photonics is immune to that. You can have high bandwidth, high long distance transmission with almost no loss of the optical signal. So that's the advantage. But, of course, if you're comparing photonic with others. In sensors, especially with chemical sensors, photonics can provide very unique interaction between the light and the material, especially at the molecule scale. So photonics can give you ultra-high sensitivity at very high resolution, which traditional chemistry, analytical method that cannot do, so that's the exclusive advantage of a photonics technology comparing with chemistry analysis technology,
Derek Smith:Your work covers such a breadth of areas. I'm curious, what are some of the foundational questions that you particularly like to answer or problems that you like to solve, they're interdisciplinary in the sense that they cover all these different areas that we're discussing.
Alan Wang:For research, we have to focus on a certain area, because our bandwidth, our energy is limited. We have to focus on the core area. So it is always photonic materials and the devices that I focus on, but the application can be many, can be at a different area. So how you can apply this core area of photonic material and the devices to solve the practical engineering challenges. So that's the way how I focus on my research, and the developer, the collaboration. But, of course, when we're considering solving the different engineering challenges, or apply the photonic material for practical applications. There are many times I need more collaborators, because my expertise it's just not enough to cover all the umbrella. So I always reach out to my colleague, and I'm blessed that many of my collaborate in the past, they are also Christians. So we work together, combine the expertise, and we can solve many practical challenges and do outstanding research.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Alan Wang. And Dr. Wang, one of the fruits of those types of efforts mentioned at the top of the show that you have numerous inventions, one of which Science Daily called the world's smallest electro-optic modulator. So if we were one of your freshman students, how would you tell us what that is and why it's unique?
Alan Wang:Yes. So first I need to explain what is electro-optical modulator? So as I mentioned, the photonics technology is widely used in high bandwidth communication, but if you're considering our current IT system, the computation is mostly done in electronics, and the communication is preferred in optics. So it requires a conversion of the electronic signal into photonic signal. And electro-optical modulator is a device that converts the electronic signal into optical signal. So this is a very key device played in our current data centers in high performance computers and the internet. But how can you make this device work more efficient, especially how you can reduce the energy consumption of these devices? So that's the research goal of the world's smallest electro-optical modulator. So if we're considering the IT industry, it has been governed by Moore's Law for several decades. So Moore's Law said that for every 18 months, the size of the transistor will shrink by a factor of two, and the density will increase by a factor of two. And that's actually completely changed the landscape of the electronic industry, because that's the way you can make the CPU faster, make the computer more powerful. But in photonics, we don't have Moore's law, because the dimension of the photonic component comparing with the transistor, the evolution is quite slow, because it's limited by the defraction of the light. But the fundamental law is the same. If you want to make the transistor more energy efficient, you make it smaller. So the same law applied here. If you want to make the electro-optical modulator, you make it smaller. So the smaller you can make it, the more energy efficient it will be. So that's a very simple design philosophy. So that's why we engage in this research, tried all our knowledge to make the device smaller and smaller, and then we can improve the energy efficiency.
Derek Smith:That's great. That's great. And I know one of many inventions for you. That's right.
Alan Wang:Yeah. So there's one famous word. So there is enough room at the bottom, which means you make it smaller and smaller, you will have more and more advantage. There is more and more work to do.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Alan Wang. And Dr. Wang, as we head into the final, a couple of minutes on the program here, I want to go back to the idea of your endowed chair position. You're one of a number of faculty members who have come to Baylor in the last year from Oregon State and Alabama and Fordham and other universities, Pacific Northwest National Labs. From your standpoint, as you look at Baylor right now and what it can grow into as we do even more of these endowed chair positions, how do you see these joining together with current faculty, just to elevate the university further?
Alan Wang:Yes. First, I'm grateful that I'm able to take this position. This endowed chair position opened a few very important areas that Baylor can grow in the future. But if you're considering Baylor became R1 university this year, it is the current faculty's contribution who are doing outstanding research that are making this happen. Which means that the current faculty at Baylor, they are doing outstanding work, and also this created the opportunity for this new incoming endowed chairs to collaborate with existing faculties at the Baylor. I see a lot of opportunity here. I talk to many of my colleagues at a different department and different schools and different college, and I see enormous amount of opportunity for the future collaborations, especially with a faculty in physics, we can collaborate in materials. And with the faculty in chemistry, we can collaborate in biosensors for healthcare and even comparing collaboration with faculties in the public health area. So how we can apply this biosensing technology for public health. So I see enormous amount of opportunity here, and I'm glad that Baylor is now recognized at R1. So we will be able to work together and attract more external funding and do outstanding research. I'm really looking forward to that.
Derek Smith:We're looking forward to seeing that as well, and appreciate you having the chance to visit with, you're glad you're here at Baylor and others in these chair positions like you, and excited to see what you and our faculty will do in the years ahead. Thanks for joining us.
Alan Wang:Thank you. Thank you for having me here.
Derek Smith:Dr. Alan Wang, Mearse Chair in Biological and Biomedical Engineering, and our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Our reminder, you can hear the rest of the other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.