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University News

Professor wins award, earns year in Germany

Contributing Writer
Monday, March 19, 2012



Professor of Engineering Huajian Gao was recently awarded a Humboldt Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Bonn, Germany, in recognition of the impact of the research he has conducted throughout his academic career. 

The Humboldt Research Award is awarded annually to scientists who have made significant impacts in their fields, according to the foundation’s website. The award, valued at 60,000 euros, also invites the winners to spend up to one year conducting research in Germany.

Gao will spend his sabbatical researching with Joachim Spatz, professor of biophysical chemistry at the University of Heidelberg, who nominated Gao for the award.

“This is a humbling research award,” Gao said. “I’m very honored that I could receive it.”

“It’s great news – I’m very happy. He really deserves it,” said Dean of Engineering Lawrence Larson.”The award is an external validation of our work at Brown.”

At Brown, Gao focuses on nanomechanics and their relationship to biological systems. His work emphasizes cell mechanics and how different nanomaterials affect the relationship between cells. Nanomechanics is an emerging discipline that studies how things work on a nanoscale, Gao said. 

“You have to approach material behavior from the atomic scale and up,” he said. “We have to understand how these small materials will interact with human beings, with animals, what are the impacts of these on our society, our health, how we can use them beneficially.”

Gao works with nanoscale wires and other nanomaterials and researches their effects on different cells. His work impacts the medical, energy and electronics fields, among others, he said. 

“We’re routinely synthesizing nanoparticles, and all the new materials we use in the microelectronics industry are nanoscale,” he said. “The research will lead to safe use of nanotechnology.”

Gao emphasized the role of sabbaticals in helping foster new research ideas and allowing professors to collaborate with new people.

“You get a lot of really good people to help you in the field, trade off new ideas, new cooperations,” he said. “This is a really precious opportunity.”

Larson echoed Gao, saying, “When professors go on sabbatical, they pick up new ideas for courses, new teaching techniques.”

Larson spoke of the difficulty that students in research-heavy studies experience when their professors go on sabbaticals. 

“Students are used to frequent contact with professors,” Larson said. “Especially graduate students who are doing research – it can be really hard when professors leave.” 

To avoid such issues, Gao said he will use Skype to communicate with his students at Brown and continue to mentor them while abroad. 

At the University of Heidelberg, Gao will emphasize biomembranes and look more closely at cell behavior, in contrast to his research at Brown, which is rooted more in mechanical research than biological research.

“I’m trying to find a new problem to work on for the next phase of my career,” he said.

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