Hongrui Jiang: An interdisciplinary innovator
Becoming an expert requires specialization. Academics traditionally delve deeper and deeper into narrower and narrower topics, answering increasingly specific questions about one single subject. Researchers today, however, realize that the modern world’s problems require complex solutions—beyond the scope of one individual discipline.
Engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison lead the way in working beyond traditional boundaries. “We’re having people do all kinds of things that, a few decades back, would be hard to imagine as related to their fields,” says Hongrui Jiang, the Lynn H. Matthias Professor and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in electrical and computer engineering.
Now, the broader academic community is recognizing and rewarding work that defies classification within one discrete discipline.
Professional organizations honor influential scientists within individual subjects by electing them as fellows. Any one of these awards is a singular distinction. Jiang recently received a trio of fellowships to three top societies—the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering—in broadly disparate fields.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” says Jiang, whose academic training is in physics and electrical engineering. “I think it’s encouraging in terms of the fact that the research arena is recognizing value and achievement in interdisciplinary research.”
Reflecting this trend, major funding agencies have begun to promote projects that don’t neatly fit within one traditional scientific sphere. In 2011, The National Institutes of Health, which typically recognizes biologists and clinicians, awarded Jiang its New Innovator Award to support his efforts to develop tunable contact lenses with integrated solar power sources and circuitry.
Throughout his career, Jiang followed the data down new avenues of inquiry, rather than restricting himself to one of the traditionally defined disciplines. He publically declared his approach within his first few days on campus during new faculty orientation with then-Dean Paul Percy.
“In retrospect, it was a little bit bold,” says Jiang. "But I said right up front that I think interdisciplinary work is the future of university research.”
Always receptive to new ideas, Jiang has delved into diverse areas including optics, soft materials, microelectromechanical systems, biologically inspired designs, and biomedical applications. Looking back, he describes the auspicious observations that led him down such varied research avenues. “It all started with a very fortuitous encounter with a magic material: hydrogel,” says Jiang.
Hydrogel, which is widely used in biology labs but rarely found in electrical engineers’ supply cabinets, swells and contracts under specific circumstances based on its chemical components. Jiang realized that the swelling could generate a mechanical force to move a microscale actuator that senses and responds to its environment as one integrated structure.
When Jiang later observed that hydrogel actuators could squeeze liquid droplets into different shapes, he saw another new use for the substance. Noticing similarities between small spheres of water and fluid-filled human eyes, he used hydrogel to make miniscule tunable lenses.
This flash of insight inspired Jiang to take a closer look at biological systems to inform his designs. “These natural systems have millions of years of evolution behind them. There must be some good reason,” he says.
Taking a bio-inspired approach led Jiang’s team to create artificial reflecting superposition compound eyes based on lobster vision, sheets of cameras inspired by the multiple eyes of jumping spiders, and domes with flexible imagers dispersed across their surfaces in the manner of compound dragonfly eyes.
Chance encounters alone don’t do justice to Jiang’s trajectory. Rather, as Louis Pasteur, 19th century chemist, microbiologist and father of modern sanitation, noted, “Where observation is concerned, fortune favors the prepared mind.”
Jiang maintains a broad perspective by staying current with research across the science, engineering and medical fields. He works with a broad array of researchers across campus, including the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the McPherson Eye Research Institute, the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and the Department of Surgery.
Though his numerous successes may make the act of breaking down scientific boundaries seem easy, Jiang acknowledges that interdisciplinary work carries a unique set of challenges.
“People from different fields attack problems in very different ways with very different methodologies,” he says. “It takes a lot of communication just to understand each other's general approaches and ways of thinking”
However, engineers who are willing to keep an open mind and invest the initial effort to reach outside of their traditional siloes reap tremendous rewards.
“I’m glad that things are changing right now,” says Jiang. “Basic science provides ideas and concepts for better tools. The engineering world will make the tools happen, make them better, and take them leaps ahead of what had been available.”