Prof. Zhenan Bao – From A Shy Girl to a Woman Ahead of Her Time

Hanoi, May 10th, 2022 – Prof. Zhenan Bao (Stanford University, USA) became the honorable laureate of the Inaugural VinFuture Special Prize for Female Innovators on January 20th, 2022. She was recognized for the advanced development of skin-inspired organic electronics and their applications in a range of medical and energy applications. Her research paves the way for artificial electronic skin (e-skin) that replicates the mechanical and sensory capabilities of real human skin, offering hope to millions of individuals living with disabilities.

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Within the scientific community, Professor Bao is far from being an ordinary woman. She currently has more than 700 cited publications and more than 100 US patents with a Google Scholar H-index 185. She is also a K.K. Lee Professor in Chemical Engineering and with courtesy appointments in Chemistry and Material Science and Engineering at Stanford University, USA.

If you get the opportunity to converse with Professor Zhenan Bao, you will be blown away by her refined and humble demeanor. It is remarkable how someone can be so successful and yet so simple at the same time. Before the VinFuture Awards Ceremony, we had the opportunity to sit down with Prof. Bao for a brief discussion about her inspiration and motivation for all her pioneering research.

“I Believe that Many Young People Would Recognize Themselves in My Story.”

Professor Bao did not come from a privileged background. Her starting point was similar to that of many other overseas students in the United States: she started her time at the University of Chicago at the age of 19. Bringing only 100 dollars with her to the country, she had to work multiple jobs, from working at a factory to working part-time at a supermarket, to cover her expenses. Despite all these challenges at the beginning, she persisted with her education and advanced to pursue a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry. Professor Bao has always been a shy person, but that has never stopped her from dreaming big: her desire for knowledge and endless curiosity kept her moving forward with the grand vision to transform the world through the creation of a new generation of medical devices.

(Professor Zhenan Bao receiving flowers during the event “Talk Future: The Dialogues with the 2021 VinFuture Laureates” on January 21st, 2022)
Creativity Driven from Questioning Why and Exposure to Diversity

Professor Bao had a simple and peaceful upbringing in Nanjing, China. Born and raised by parents who were scientists themselves, she discovered the key to creativity in her adolescent days. Her father would constantly question her why things happen, turning the world into a series of puzzles and riddles for her to answer. As an adult, in a similar fashion, she makes hypotheses and designs experiments to test those hypotheses, eventually solving the scientific mysteries of her own.

Soon after earning her Ph.D., Professor Bao selected Bell Labs (known as Nokia Bell Labs) to complete her postdoctoral research. Such a prominent research environment exposed her to scientists in a variety of disciplines, fields of expertise, cultural backgrounds, and ethnicities.

“I am a chemist by training… [at Bell Labs] I had the opportunity to talk to physicists, electrical engineers, neurologists, and many more from multiple scientific areas. I was introduced to different perspectives, points of view, and approaches to asking the right questions. Such a diverse environment compelled us to work together and think creatively to tackle various challenges from all possible aspects and angles,”

Professor Bao said.
(Professor Zhenan Bao sharing about her work  during the event “Talk Future: The Dialogues with the 2021 VinFuture Laureates” on January 21st, 2022)
The Quest for Learning Inspired by a Popsicle

Among the numerous questions posed by her father, Professor Bao will never forget one in particular, which became her ultimate source of scientific inspiration. Summers in her hometown, Nanjing, were always hot, and Professor Bao’s father would give her a popsicle every week to get through the weather. That day, as she and her father strolled around the park, her father turned to her and asked, “Will this popsicle float or sink if you put it into the lake?” Assuming that popsicles are the same as rocks, she swiftly replied that they would sink. As a 3-year-old child at the time, she did not even want to experiment with her popsicle since it was the only one she could have for the week. “If you throw your popsicle into the lake and the result is different from what you initially anticipated, I’ll buy you a new one,” her father encouraged her to test her hypothesis. Much to her surprise, the popsicle floated in the water, teaching her for the very first scientific lesson that ice has a lower density than water.

A Woman Ahead of Her Time

People say Professor Bao was fated to do science; she, however, attributes her early years at Bell Labs to her success. Science meant more to her than personal inspiration or solving problems of family and friends. Bell Labs was huge in the 1990s. “It is the place where the first transistors were created, the fundamental invention that changed how we use electronics nowadays and was subsequently awarded a Nobel Prize. Research on black holes also originated from this institution, giving us much understanding of black holes in general and the formation of the universe; this was another Nobel-winning discovery”. But nothing comes from serendipity. “Bell Labs is renowned for its tradition of encouraging people to work on projects that have the potential to change the world, work that would require researchers to advance the development of fundamental sciences, alter the technological landscape and people’s overall thinking,” Professor Bao explained.

(Professor Zhenan Bao giving her award-acceptance speech during the VinFuture Awards Ceremony on January 21st, 2022)

It is your big dreams that propel you above your limitations, giving you the courage to conquer the world. Time working at Bell Labs taught Professor Bao to think ahead of time and dare to dream big. Since her early days as a researcher, over 20 years ago, she fantasized about creating foldable displays far before the world’s first smartphones were created. After becoming a professor at Stanford University, she began contemplating flexible displays many years prior to their commercialization, predicting that they would soon become a hit. “I am always looking for new challenges. And when I discovered the need for a robotic/artificial hand with human sensory properties, I instantly considered how flexible electronics may be the solution,” Professor Bao shared. From these kinds of scientific visions, Professor Bao begins to ponder various forms of electronics, notably electronics in the form of human skin. Together with her team, she is now redefining the next generation of electronics and the whole science behind the creation of materials that resemble human skin. From a shy girl from Nanjing, with her big dreams and a never-ending quest for learning, Professor Bao is now one of the most forward-thinking and innovative researchers who leads the revolution of next-generation medical devices.

*This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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