Research & Innovation

Stevens Professors Demonstrate How Collaboration Can Transform Research

Henry Du and Hongjun Wang explore possibilities and push limits, discovering that what they can accomplish together is even greater than solo efforts

Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Professor and Associate Dean for Research Henry Du had already been at Stevens for over a decade and a half when Hongjun Wangbiomedical engineering professor and director of Center for Healthcare Innovation (CHI), was hired as an assistant professor. From the beginning, Du wanted to see Wang succeed.

The two came from different scientific backgrounds but immediately recognized the strength that they could gain from one another. “The whole is more than the sum of the parts — this is a great example of that,” recalled Du. “Both Hongjun and I recognized there were things we could do together, research-wise, that would considerably enhance our work.”

Part of Wang’s research focuses on photodynamic therapy. This type of therapy utilizes the characteristics of a type of reactive oxygen species known as singlet oxygen — an excited state of oxygen molecule. Traditionally, these molecules can cause a lot of harm in the body because they are unstable and can damage the cells around them. However, photodynamic therapy seeks to exploit this process by using light to activate the light-sensitive chemicals and consequently generate singlet oxygen within a type of tissue that is causing harm to the body, such as in severe acne or skin cancer, and destroying the harmful tissue. A limitation to this therapy is the depth to which light can penetrate the tissue, however, meaning that for a long time, this powerful technique has mostly been used to treat tissues on or just below the surface of the skin.

Du’s background is in fiber optics and nanophotonics. Certain types of nanostructured metals, such as gold nanoparticles, can exhibit a property known as the plasmonic effect that can amplify a localized electromagnetic field of incident light at a well-defined and yet tunable resonance wavelength.

“Very little research, if at all, existed then to explore the synergistic effects of surface plasmonics and photomedicine,” said Du. “Integrating our methods could bring about significant benefits in photomedicine, from targeted drug delivery to increased efficacy of cancer therapy,” noted Wang. The plasmonic effect could allow for nanoparticles targeted deeper in the body to amplify the incident laser irradiation to significantly enhance free radical production, making it possible for the therapy to be used on tissues further in the body.

Their initial research was a great success and jump started a variety of new projects and collaborations. They have published together numerous times in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, inspiring many other researches in the fields of plasmonics and phototherapy. Their work has also led to a partnership with Hackensack Meridian Health’s Center for Discovery and Innovation.

“That is a testament to the quality of the work that we do,” said Du. “Had either of us done work on our own, we would not have had so much fun and achieved such a level of intellectual satisfaction today

“Hongjun has always been thought-provocative in our collaboration since the start, given his double Ph.D. degrees and his application-oriented mind-set,” continued Du. Du credits Wang for stimulating his research interest in the field of biomedical engineering and life sciences, which has also enabled his ongoing collaboration with faculty and clinicians at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the Yale School of Medicine.

The area in which the pair are particularly proud is of their work with students.

“We come from different backgrounds and can come together and collaborate for the students,” said Wang. “[It is] really beneficial for the students” because, as Wang explained, “They get the knowledge from the two groups and this helps them become very confident and gain lots of skills.”

In years past, students could have both professors as co-advisors. Students would come in with backgrounds in either materials science or biology and would work as a team. Wang and Du graduated three students this way and all three of them are highly successful in their careers currently, working as professor, entrepreneur and senior scientist in industry.

“Although our students are from different fields and the two fields are so different, we put them together and they realize the difference between the two fields is not so different after all.” explained Du. “Hongjun’s students can speak the language of materials science, and my students can speak the language of biomedical engineering. They all develop a solid interdisciplinary knowledge foundation and possess the skill set with respect to the various tools and techniques by the time they graduate. Our collaboration benefits the students greatly.”

Du is currently serving as the associate dean for research and wishes to devote as much time as in the past to research. Although not co-advising doctoral students at the moment, Du and Wang still work together and serve on the doctoral thesis committees of their respective students. “We continue to collaborate and get inputs from one another,” said Wang. “And I can imagine this collaboration until our retirement, it is very rewarding on both sides.”

The pair are adamant about how much the collaboration has benefitted their work and made their time at Stevens more successful and enjoyable.

“I think we have had a wonderful couple of decades of collaboration,” said Du. “When you talk to people, bouncing ideas around, you will be surprised what exciting ideas will come about. That is the benefit of collaboration.”

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