Thanks to the unique polymer skin she has made, Professor Zhenan Bao could help prosthesis
users regain the sense of touch. Her work focuses on transforming these polymers into an electronic skin that is as sensitive to touch as our skin, by turning them into conducting materials.
Potential applications for such a skin could see the light of day pretty soon, says Prof. Bao who arrived in the United States in 1990 when she was still in her junior year study at the Nanjing University in China. This university is where her mother was a chemistry professor and her father was a physics professor. She obtained her PhD in organic chemistry five years later and began work at the prestigious Bell Labs, specialized in telecoms and computing.
Since then, she has co-published around 400 scientific papers and has received more than 40 awards and distinctions. She also has more than 60 patents to her name.
In 2015, the journal Nature named her as one of the top ten people who have had an important impact on science that year. In the same year, she published a remarkable paper about an electronic skin that was sensitive to touch. The electronic skin, made from a special polymer film, was developed in her chemical engineering laboratory at Stanford University. It is made up of a printed electronic circuit and a pressure sensor. When pressure signals were applied, the electronic skin produced electric pulses that were used to successfully stimulate the brain. Such signals can be sent to a computer or, if properly interfaced, to the human brain. If coated onto prostheses, the electronic skin could, for example, help amputee patients recover their sense of touch.
Eager to develop real-world applications for her research, Prof. Bao co-founded a start-up in 2010. Her aim is not only to create innovative materials but also to develop prototype devices that exploit these materials. Her love of chemistry no doubt comes thanks to her parents, she says, who were both science professors at Nanjing University– where she grew up. “My father was a physicist and my mother a chemist. I remember playing with distilled water squeezy bottles as a child, and being fascinated by the color change of pH papers and the beautiful patterns of microprocessors on a silicon wafer.”
Today, mother of two children herself, the researcher cites two other important role models in her life - Edwin Chandross, previously a manager of Bell Labs, and Elsa Reichmanis, also previously a manager at Bell Labs and now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. At 45, she admits that her biggest challenge was to understand who she was, and what she was best at – a must for having confidence in yourself, she says, and for overcoming the challenges that come with a career in science.