Five Hot Prospects on the UW Faculty, from Engineering Dean Matt O’Donnell

4/13/09Follow @xconomy

This is the time of year when I look for hot young prospects for my fantasy baseball team. Maybe that’s why it seemed natural to think of Matt O’Donnell, the dean of the University of Washington’s College of Engineering, as being like a baseball general manager. Part of his job is to recruit and develop talented young stars across information technology, biotech, and cleantech, in hopes that a few will blossom into the next Evan Longoria of their field. (For those who don’t follow sports, Longoria is a star third baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays.)

O’Donnell, who was elected into the National Academy of Engineering in February, joined the UW in 2006 from the University of Michigan. He’s a physicist by training who found his niche in sophisticated medical imaging technologies, including ultrasound, optoacoustics, and using catheters with tiny cameras to look inside coronary arteries. So bioengineering is his comfort zone, but as Dean, he oversees 10 different engineering departments, including computer science and materials science.

When I stopped by O’Donnnell’s office last week, I put him on the spot, asking him to name five young talents to watch for the future in IT, biotech, and cleantech. Here’s who he picked:

Suzie Pun

Pun got her doctorate in chemical engineering from Caltech in 2000, and has already gotten some national attention for UW with a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2006. She was recently granted tenure as a bioengineering professor, O’Donnell says. Pun’s latest research interest, in collaboration with UW’s Patrick Stayton, is in using polymer materials to improve the delivery of biotech drugs into cells, a project that won more than $7 million in support from the state’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

This polymer chemistry work holds the potential to solve some of biology’s big problems—how to deliver gene therapy and RNA interference molecules efficiently throughout the body, make them last long enough to work, and get them precisely to the right targets not just on the surface of cells, but inside them where they can be more effective, O’Donnell says. “She’s young, she’s bright, she’s energetic,” O’Donnell says.

Xiaohu Gao

“He’s a brewer,” O’Donnell says. This doesn’t mean Gao plays for the major league team in Milwaukee. It means that Gao, an assistant professor of bioengineering, has expertise in synthesizing complex nanotech structures that are essential ingredients for creating sharper diagnostic medical images. These chemical units can be linked to antibodies, which can seek out a particular structure on a cell, like a biomarker for cancer. This can allow the antibodies to “light up” under the glare of an MRI machine, as deep as two centimeters under the skin. Once you know precisely where the diseased cells are, it is easier to direct targeted therapy, O’Donnell says.

This kind of improved “contrast agent” for imaging is obviously near and dear to the Dean’s heart. “I’m an imaging guy, and we’re always looking for help with better contrast agents,” he says. Plus, he says, Gao is a fun personality to work with.

Tadayoshi “Yoshi” Kohno

Kohno, a cybersecurity expert, joined the faculty of the UW Department of Computer Science & Engineering in 2006. He first gained national attention as a graduate student at UC San Diego. That’s where he exposed security weaknesses in Diebold voting machines that made them vulnerable to fraud, which got him an invitation to testify before Congress. In his first year at UW, he and his colleagues showed that a Nike running shoe, embedded with chips that send a wireless signal to an iPod to track how far and fast people run, could be hacked into by stalkers or thieves to track people’s movements.

This sort of cybersecurity research has a number of potential applications, including helping people find stolen laptop computers, and protecting wireless signals given off by implantable medical devices, O’Donnell says.

Magdalena “Magda” Balazinska

Balazinska, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, is researching the use of databases for cloud computing to better enable collaborations, O’Donnell says. One of her recent projects has been to study a wireless monitoring system for people inside a building (which sounds awfully Big Brother-like to my ear). Balazinska, in this in-house write-up, said one of her goals is to see what benefits can come from such a system while protecting people’s privacy.

Guozhong Cao

Time was running out on our 30-minute meeting, but O’Donnell still had to think of one last up-and-comer from the world of cleantech. He named Cao, pronounced like “Chow.” This professor is a little more senior than the others O’Donnell named, but his work made headlines last fall as the founding technology for Seattle-based startup EnerG2.

This company received $8.5 million in venture funding to develop more efficient ways to store energy—a fundamental technology that might pave the way for the grid to manage the peaks and valleys inherent with renewable energy sources.

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