Popular Science reported on an intersession class that taught students the basics of materials science through an up close (very up close!) look at many people’s favorite treat: chocolate.More
Faculty Q&A: Hai-Quan Mao
We spoke with Dr. Hai-Quan Mao, professor of materials science and engineering, to understand his view of biomaterials research.
How did you get interested in materials science? What interests you the most about materials science?
I was fascinated by chemistry early on. Despite growing up in a rural area of China, I was lucky enough to have had a passionate chemistry teacher in middle school who gave me the opportunities to play around with chemicals and run simple experiments. That interest and curiosity followed me through high school and sent me to the Department of Chemistry at Wuhan University. By chance, I was assigned to the polymer chemistry track, and I grew to like polymers more than general organic chemistry. During my Ph.D. study at Wuhan University and postdoc training at Johns Hopkins, I mostly focused on synthesizing biodegradable polymers for drug and gene delivery applications. It was not until I began working at Johns Hopkins in Singapore and National University of Singapore that I started looking at the polymers we synthesized from the perspectives of materials science and engineering (MSE). I became interested in materials science enough to pursue a career in MSE for the past 15 years.
My appreciation for MSE grew deeper over time as I practiced research and teaching in this area. Materials are the building blocks for any technologies. It is intriguing to think that everything around us (devices, structures, articles, etc.) can be made from only four fundamental types of materials (metal, ceramics, polymers, and composites). Looking at how nature produces and uses materials at such high levels of precision and efficiency motivates me to better understand how materials are synthesized and assembled, how structures dictate their properties, and how we develop better ways to engineer materials.
Biomaterials have already made–and will continue to make–an important impact on healthcare. My goal is to develop more materials to improve our ability to treat diseases and repair tissue loss.
What, so far, has been your biggest accomplishment in research?
My laboratory has been developing materials to enable more efficient delivery of therapeutic agents. An important achievement is the development of nanoparticles that can package nucleic acids with tunable size and shapes. These nanoparticles have been tested for delivering DNA vaccines for treating allergies, carrying DNA constructs for cancer diagnosis, and delivering small interfering RNA to brain tissue for treating Alzheimer’s disease. These nanoparticles are also being used to deliver regenerative signals to promote tissue regeneration.
In addition, we have also developed nanofiber materials for growing stem cells to either expand them more effectively to larger quantities or guide them to derive different tissue cell types for regenerative therapy.
What research development or discovery would you be most excited to find?
I have two on-going projects that I am most excited about. One is to uncover how the shape of nanoparticles may facilitate their “trafficking” properties inside the body and influence their delivery efficiency. This knowledge will help with designing better nanomedicine – nanoparticles with higher delivery efficiency to target tissues. The other project is to develop a matrix material that enhances the regeneration of soft tissues. This solution will make it possible to regenerate several soft tissue types, including nerve, brain tissue, and liver.
What advice do you have for students and young engineers engaging in materials research?
Build a wide foundation. It can be overwhelming to take in all subjects of basic sciences while learning engineering, but you can acquire them at any pace that works for you. The most important thing is to remain open minded and find inspirations in new and old fields.
Learn biology at whatever level that is right for you, even if you are not pursuing a career in biotechnology or medicine. Nature is the best materials engineer. You will be inspired.
Research is taking on a far more holistic approach now. Materials solutions are tailored to the specific applications, more so than ever before. Knowing the end product performance criteria is critical to the design and construction of your new material, even if you may be trying to engineer materials that would serve as the building blocks for different technologies