Graphic image of a brain

Chair funding will help in developing cutting-edge technology for Parkinson’s Disease

Jian-Ping Wang, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, has made some very big discoveries involving very tiny things. A world leader in the cutting-edge of “spintronics,” Wang was recently named the first recipient of the Robert Hartmann Chair, the largest chair in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Now he envisions making even bigger discoveries.

“Being named Hartmann Chair is a great honor for me, and for my research group. In addition to enhancing my research position, it means funding for new research areas, which often is difficult to get,” Wang said.

One new research area Wang hopes to move forward on is “the Minnesota magnetic brain stimulation array,” technology that will treat Parkinson’s Disease and associated tremor.

“The traditional approach in treating Parkinson’s is to electrically stimulate neuro cells in the brain, which requires direct contact, and that is not always good for the patient,” Wang said. “Using magnetic brain stimulation would eliminate the contact issue with the neuro cells that the electrical counterpart has. It also means higher density, low power, and better control.”

His plan is to combine his expertise in the cutting-edge field of spintronics, which uses the “spin” of an electron rather than its charge, with magnetic nanostructures to make a new system chip you can implant in the brain. He says the technology could “change the world.”

“It’s a very new area that requires collecting prime data,” Wang said. “Funding from the Hartmann Chair will help us to explore this new research field.”

Never-ending curiosity

Wang, who joined the College of Science and Engineering faculty in 2002, has been at the forefront of a number of big discoveries, which is a reflection of his probing curiosity. His research has resulted in more than 200 scientific publications, more than 40 patents, three startup companies, and breakthroughs that could revolutionize medical and environmental testing, including biosensors that can detect disease from a single drop of body fluid.

He earned global attention for his research in Fe16N2, a potential powerful rare-earth-free magnet that could replace expensive and less environmentally friendly rare earth magnets in wind turbines, motors, and generators.

He also heads up the Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces and Novel Architectures (C-SPIN), a research collaboration of 33 experts from 19 universities that investigates groundbreaking technologies for the next generation of microelectronics. The center began more than two years ago with a $28 million grant from Semiconductor Research Corp and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The center is positioned to address the key challenges of next generation computing and memory.

Originally from China, Wang earned his doctorate from Institute of Physics in Beijing and spent seven years building a magnetic research program in Singapore before being recruited to the University of Minnesota.

Initially, Wang hesitated about the decision to move from Singapore—his family and friends were there, and he jokes that the food was good—but he made the decision to move. “Minnesota has a strong reputation in research with people who understand and appreciate technology. I also felt I would have more flexibility and research opportunities,” he said.

Focus on students

In addition to being a leader in his field, Wang is well-liked by his students. He received the outstanding professor award for his contribution to undergraduate teaching in 2010, of which he is extremely proud.

“As a professor, your main mission is to teach the student and that’s generally a long-term investment,” Wang said. “It’s especially satisfying when students send you a note a couple years later telling you what impact you had on their lives.”

He also gets excited about students who express interest in becoming part of his research group.

“I will take on any undergraduate student who wants to do research,” Wang said. “We have very good students here—from undergraduate to Ph.D. You can see the ones who are passionate about research. You can see it in their eyes. They want to do something great. So we work on new ideas, address issues, and try to solve problems.”

He says his research style is to focus on fundamental research but to target certain applications. With this mindset, Wang says he always expects some unexpected results.

“That’s the most exciting part about doing engineering-related research. You solve the problem, you help society, and you impact society,” Wang said. “I have the ability to conceptualize and see the links to address issues. That gives me encouragement and then my students also follow.”

For now, Wang is focused on pursing the next big thing—developing a magnetic device for deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson’s. Even though he believes his idea still may be too early, he sees the long-term impact of solving a problem.

“If you have an idea, do the early work, have a lot of fantastic students and the support of a chair professorship to explore fundamental challenges, the impact will be much greater,” Wang said.

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