Penn State

Penn State professor makes name for himself in short time

Penn State assistant professor of mechanical engineering Tak-Sing Wong works in the Millennium Science Complex lab for nature-inspired engineering. He has been named by MIT Technology Review as one of the “35 Innovators Under 35.”
Penn State assistant professor of mechanical engineering Tak-Sing Wong works in the Millennium Science Complex lab for nature-inspired engineering. He has been named by MIT Technology Review as one of the “35 Innovators Under 35.” CDT photo

The walls of Tak-Sing Wong’s spacious office are bare, the shelves hold only a few books and a single frame containing a bright blue butterfly sits in the corner.

The only image to take his mind off the white board sprawled with numerous markings — most undecipherable to the average mind — is the wide window overlooking one of the many gardens outside the Millennium Science Complex on the Penn State campus.

Having moved to State College in January, Wong, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has yet to fully settle in to his new career of teaching and researching.

But he has made a name for himself in his time here.

The 33-year-old Hong Kong native has been named one of the “35 Innovators Under 35” by MIT Technology Review — a list that, in the past, has included the likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Jonathan Ive, the chief designer for Apple.

“I had known about this ranking a long time ago because of the very well-known people ... that were on this list,” Wong said. “Of course, at that time when I heard about this list, I never would have imagined that I would be one of the people on it.”

In 1999 and in each year since 2002, MIT Technology Review has recognized 35 people who “are doing exciting work that could shape their field for decades,” according to its website.

Editors choose 80 finalists from a pool of about 500 nominees. Outside judges then choose which of the inventors, visionaries and humanitarians will be recognized based on the originality and impact, or potential impact, of their work.

The ceremony to honor this year’s innovators will be held Sept. 24 in Cambridge, Mass.

Wong comes from a humble background, reared, along with his two older siblings, in a close-knit family by parents who were factory workers.

Although, he said, his parents were unable to pass along knowledge he could “learn from a book” because they lacked college educations, they did teach him a lot about hard work and a positive attitude.

“They have been very hard-working and persistent my whole life to keep our family together,” he said. “I grew up learning from their attitude.”

They also encouraged him to choose a career based on his interests, which is why, when he chose a major at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he went with mechanical engineering.

He said he found the subject “really cool,” in part because he could use his passion for physics and math in applications such as robotics.

His adviser there, professor Wen Jung Li, introduced him to laboratory research and encouraged him to further his career in the United States.

As a result of that encouragement and an “eye-opening,” one-week scholarship visit in 2001 to Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., Wong chose to move thousands of miles from home to earn a doctorate at UCLA.

It was his first experience working with people of different nationalities and research perspectives.

His adviser, Chih-Ming Ho, said he could see Wong was very smart from the first time they met briefly at a nanotechnology conference in China — before Wong had even applied for Ho’s research group.

“He helped other people and he led the students to work hard and brought them in the right direction on what they needed to do,” Ho said.

After graduating from UCLA, Wong moved to Boston to work at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

There, fellow researchers of different backgrounds and areas of expertise introduced him to biology, chemistry, physics and biomedical engineering.

Under the guidance of his adviser, Joanna Aizenberg, Wong developed the technology that would bring him acclaim.

Wong said he was attracted to Penn State because its mission aligns with his career goal of combining biology and materials science for engineering applications.

This goal has manifested itself in what MIT Technology Review called “one of today’s most intriguing and potentially useful new materials” — slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces, known as SLIPS.

Wong’s invention, modeled after the pitcher plant, which uses its slippery leaves to capture prey, repels any type of liquid and prevents organisms from sticking to its surface.

The material could be used to prevent ice from adhering, and in developing blood-resistant, antibacterial and friction-reducing surfaces.

In layman’s terms, SLIPS could be applied to enhance safety for helicopters and planes and reduce energy in refrigerators by preventing ice from accumulating on surfaces. It could be applied on medical devices such as implants to prevent bacteria from attaching.

Aside from SLIPS, Wong’s future research involves developing smart materials with tunable surface properties, such as changing color on demand or reversible adhesion.

He sees this research helping the military if it can be developed into uniforms with Spider-Man-like sticking properties or chameleon-like color changes, or helping medicine if it can be used to develop adhesives that can reversibly stick onto wet tissues.

Wong even looks toward a bandage whose adhesive properties can be turned off, eliminating the discomfort of ripping it off the skin.

He said he finds the motivation for these inventions outside of academia — in fact, outside of this world.

Crime-fighting gadgets in his favorite movies, among them “Iron Man, “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” encourage him to think about how to develop new technology.

“A lot of times, there’s a motivation of ‘how can we translate something that doesn’t exist outside of science fiction into real life?’ ” Wong said.

His goal is for everyone — including his parents — to be able to benefit from research derived from his laboratory by the time he retires.

But Wong insists the work of his colleagues and mentors at Harvard and his team of 14 researchers at Penn State deserves a lot of the credit for developing this material.

“The competition is very tough for this award, and to have him chosen for it — it was great for him and it was great for Penn State and our department,” said Karen Thole, head of the mechanical and nuclear engineering department. “It gave a lot of visibility to Penn State that he’s here. ... He’s a star.”

The move from the bustling cities of Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Boston to the quiet countryside of State College was not an easy adjustment for Wong.

He was not used to harsh winters or the absence of many multicultural foods, including his favorite Chinese dish of dim sum.

However, he said, the research support and facilities, the friendly residents of State College and the atmosphere have made the move worth it.

“In State College ... I get the benefit of being in a very beautiful and quiet environment, and I think that’s great for my research,” he said. “A lot of the time I want to have that space to keep me thinking about new ideas.”

Wong wanted to return the contributions he has been given by Penn State in some way, so he developed his own class: bio-inspired interface engineering.

The class uses his research to teach students “how biological species use their surfaces for different functions ... and translate these strategies for new applications,” he said.

Wong also teaches a mechanical engineering class, his first foray into teaching aside from guest-lecturing at UCLA.

Wong said going down in history with Zuckerberg and Ive has placed pressure on him, but that it that can further his research.

“It’s great to be recognized for your work, and I think this is a motivation that will drive me even harder,” he said. “Hopefully, one day my work can benefit everyone just like Facebook, Apple and Google.”