The ever-changing technological advancement, from e-commerce, smart healthcare to biomedical testing, has brought endless possibilities to human beings. The cornerstone of all these developments is the “semiconductor.”
Situated in Hsinchu, a major technology hub, the Organic semiconductor Laboratory of National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University dedicates itself to the development of solution-processed organic semiconductor devices and the promotion of the industrial application upgrades. In an exclusive interview with the Ministry of Science and Technology Center for Global Affairs and Science Engagement (MOST GASE), Professor Hsiao-Wen Zan of the Department of Photonics, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, one of the advisors of the laboratory, shared how she considered “care” as a point of departure, and introduced forward-looking technology into the life sciences and medical field.
Science and technology come from humanity, research starts from care
Professor Zan's fields of expertise include organic electronic devices, metal oxide thin-film transistors, and organic/inorganic hybrid sensors. Apart from the development of forward-looking technology, she also leads the research team to make good use of existing technology for the benefit of healthcare.
In the last decade, the gas sensor technology platform developed by Professor Zan and her team has been verified to be widely used, and the application includes testing the freshness of fishes, detecting ammonia in the breath for the evaluation of the efficiency of hemodialysis, and rapid screenings for high-risk groups of kidney diseases. Working together with the nephrologists of Hsin-Chu Branch of National Taiwan University Hospital and Linkou Chang-Geng Memorial Hospital, the team has completed clinical data of several hundred person-times, while the nephrologists who worked on the projects have taken the American Society of Nephrology Annual Meeting by storm with their presentations. The structure of the platform sensor has been patented in Taiwan and the U.S. In addition to cooperating with Vate Technology, a domestic enterprise, her team is also involved in cooperation with Corning Incorporated of the U.S. With the use of low-cost chemical reagents, the Dual Optical Fiber Reaction Tank technology developed by Professor Zan's team can also successfully analyze the urea concentration of cat urines by checking cat litters, and judge the status of kidney disease in cats. The validity of the application has been verified as the team worked with Kaohsiung City-headquartered Jong-Shing Animal Hospital.
In the early days, the technologies were created to fit the development of enterprises. The goals have gradually shifted to biomedical applications and health checks, which are essential to the aging society. Professor Zan believes that universities must shoulder more responsibilities in more forward-looking R&D development. She believes that the universities should focus on meeting clinical needs with existing technologies and develop medical products in a precise manner while novel technologies are developed.
Professor Zan said, with a smile, that when she explained the brand new concept of thin-film transistor to others in her earlier days, she had no choice but to describe that it “can increase the resolutions of panels or develop soft panels.” The description would leave the listeners confused and failed to catch their attention. As the research direction gradually inclines towards screening technology in the healthcare field, people always express support and encouragement at the exhibition venues, clinics or hospitals. Consequently, the students in the research team also have a deep sense of accomplishment regarding what they have learned and how they could help the society practically.
The “carefree” attitude of joint research allows better result sharing
In the past decade, Professor Zan's research team has worked closely with the team of Photonic Team Director Dr. Olivier Soppera, of the Mulhouse Materials Science Institute, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS IS2M). They also co-supervised students who pursue Taiwanese-French joint dual PhD. Currently, the main goal is to develop optical direct-writing semiconductor sensors and apply them to various biochemical sensors, as well as to develop the technology of the screening of saliva and urea of patients with chronic kidney disease. The teams have jointly published fourteen SCI papers over the years.
Professor Zan believes that both domestic and international cooperation must be based on “mutual trust and consideration”. In addition to regular visits and continuous communication, it is important to not care too much about the performance of publishing. As a result, the research is more likely to have far-reaching effects and the research results can be shared.
Professor Zan shared her experience as an example. When she and her partners from France tried to patent a research result, the two sides could not reach a consensus on the approach of applying for a patent. Finally, Professor Zan chose to let the French side to patent the results on their own. Recently, the two sides encountered a similar situation, in which it was necessary to apply for a patent to protect the research result. Because of the past example, the French side agreed to let the National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University to lead the patent application.
Three scholars join hands to educate talents, sharing equipment and funds
The Organic semiconductor Laboratory is a cross-school organization lead by three scholars, including Professor Zan of National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Professor Hsin-Fei Meng of Institute of Physics of the same university, and Professor Sheng-fu Horng of National Tsing Hua University. The equipment and the research funds are shared; furthermore, three professors even co-advise / co-assist students in their research. Today, the laboratory has developed prototypes of projects such as ammonia sensor, organic light-emitting diode lighting and organic solar cells, and is working towards their practical commercial use. About 15 master’s graduates in this joint laboratory are trained each year to bring new skillsets into semiconductor-related industry.
Professor Zan described the cooperation of the three scholars with an old Chinese saying: “To work together with the hardness of gold, and pointing out the mistakes of each other like throwing stones.” Not only do they share experimental equipment, they also share research funds, maintain stable operations of the laboratory, and always keep in-depth discussions on research directions. Professor Zan, Professor Meng, and Professor Horng guide students hand-in-hand and brainstorm with each other. “Generally, during a meeting in a laboratory, a teacher would usually have to deal with a group of students. In our laboratory, two or three teachers would join the communication, enthusiastically discussing one another, and I would usually be inspired and conquer a blind spot!”
Go your own way and there will be no gender difference
Professor Zan is a well-known Taiwanese female scientist. She is the winner of the “Rising Talent” award in the 4th annual Taiwan Outstanding Women in Science awards ceremony, the winner of Chinese Institute of Engineers Outstanding Professor Award and the chairperson of the woman engineer committee of IEEE Taipei section. She holds talks in campuses regularly to reverse gender stereotypes and enhance female students' confidence in joining scientific research
Professor Zan stated that cartoons of Mother of Tiger Shimajiro and Dora,is a example often shown during her speeches to remind students not to set limits on themselves due to the implicit suggestions of the environment. “In the cartoons, Mother of Tiger Shimajiro always wears an apron doing her housework, but Dora's mother rarely shows up because she's an archaeologist and is busy exploring.”
Professor Zan emphasized that the world of scientific research is gender-neutral, and she had never felt any differences between men and women on the road to research. “As long as you have interests and enthusiasm, and are brave enough to take the steps and not limit yourself, gender differences do not exist!”