Professor Huajian Gao Looks to Nature for Inspiration
The genesis of Huajian Gao’s research into solid mechanics began when he first looked up at the sky. “When I was a kid I was always interested in learning how things work,” he explains. Watching airplanes or birds fly, he decided that “there should be some deep-down principle behind these things,” despite their being very different. His present work—combining the study of engineering systems with the study of biological systems—reflects that dual interest.
Mechanical engineering, Gao states, concerns itself with how materials break—their toughness and adhesion: “To design a machine, you have to know the material properties.” But if you look at nature—especially at something like bones—you’ll note that the chemical components are weak: minerals like chalk and proteins like skin. However, when nature mixes them in composite structures, they become durable enough to support our bodies. Taking geometry into account then, and not just the specific chemical components, you can “make very strong, durable, reliable materials.”
Gao applies these principles to benefit society: fabricating machines or devices to advance technology that are also environmentally-friendly. “In human engineering we are making things that are not easily degradable. So we have pollution, we use up energy,” he says. “I draw (my) inspiration from nature,” because nature has been “at it a lot longer than human technology.”
Recruited to Brown in 2005 from the prestigious Max Planck Institute in Germany, Gao credits Brown’s historical excellence in engineering—and the offer of a University Professorship—as crucial to his decision to come to College Hill. “I’m very proud of my colleagues here. This is a research-intensive university; many of our colleagues are cutting-edge, top-notch in their fields.” In fact, current academic leaders in Harvard, California Institute of Technology, and many other prestigious institutions are, he asserts, academic descendants of William Prager—the first director of Brown’s engineering program—or his colleagues.
Gao believes that Brown’s School of Engineering stands at an historical place. “We’re experiencing a transition from single-discipline research to multi-disciplinary, collaborative, cooperative research,” he says. “Brown has an advantage in being very collegial and a family environment. But we see an urgent need to expand our capabilities: more colleagues, more clusters of excellence. By expanding the School, by successfully fundraising…we’ll be able to push our knowledge, push our capability to another level; critical to Brown and to Brown engineering.”
Professor Huajian Gao, the Walter H. Annenberg University Professor of Engineering, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in February 2012. Election to this academy is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer.