Taylor Gunjin Wang

Wang’s inventions moved from novel methods of acoustic manipulation of matter to the design of new encapsulations for cells used in bioengineering, with practical applications in the fight of diseases such as diabetes. His innovative design of drop dynamics experiments in zero gravity made him the first Chinese American astronaut.

Born: June 16, 1940; Shanghai, China Also known as:Taylor Gun-Jin Wang; Wang Ganjun

(Pinyin) Primary fields:Biology;medicine and medical technology; physics Primary invention:Cell encapsulation

Early Life

Taylor Gunjin Wang (wahng) was born in Shanghai, China, during World War II. He was the oldest son of businessman Zhang Wang and his wife, homemaker Jiehong Yu. His parents would have two more boys and one girl. In 1943, the Wang family fled from the Japanese invaders to the seat of the Chinese nationalist government in Chongqing. At age three, Wang fell into the raging Jialing River. Clinging to a bamboo pole, he was saved from drowning. His family interpreted his survival as a sign that his life would be special.

Wang’s family returned to Shanghai at the end of World War II in 1945. Wang’s first boyhood experiment involved winding up a valuable mantel clock beyond breaking point. He did this to try to find out if time passed faster if the clock was wound up more than usual. His inquisitive spirit never left him.

After their father fled to Taiwan when the communists conquered mainland China in 1949 and their mother was able to join him there in the same year, Wang and his siblings sought to escape to Hong Kong in 1950. The smuggler hired to pass the four children beyond communist lines was ready to betray them at the border. However, a kindly English journalist intervened and saved them from communist border guards. The Wang family was reunited in Taiwan in 1950.

At age twelve, Wang decided to become a scientist. This was against the wishes of his father, who wanted Wang to inherit the family business. In 1961, Wang graduated from the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. He assumed that his intelligence alone would ensure him entrance to a

Taiwanese university. Surprisingly, as he neglected diligent study, he failed the Taiwan college entrance exams. Dedicating himself to his studies during two years in Hong Kong, in 1963 Wang was admitted to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and moved to the United States. There Wang married Xueping Feng in 1965, and their first son, Kenneth, was born the next year.

Life’s Work

In 1967, Wang graduated from UCLA with a bachelor of science degree in physics. He obtained his master of science degree in physics from UCLA in 1968, focusing on fluid mechanics. In 1970, Wang’s second son, Eric, was born. Wang obtained his Ph.D. in physics from UCLA in 1971; his thesis was on solid-state physics.

In 1972, Wang was appointed senior scientist in the Physics Section of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology. His research on fluid dynamics of drops and bubbles in a containerless environment attracted the attention of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA accepted one of Wang’s proposed space experiments in 1974. He became a U.S. citizen the following year. On October 4, 1977, Wang’s first patent was granted. It was for an invention in acoustic energy shaping, discovered by Wang and two other scientists.

In 1979, Wang became manager of the Microgravity Science and Applications Program at JPL. In 1982, NASA began to look for astronaut-scientists to conduct experiments in space. Since Wang’s research on the dynamics of drops and bubbles in microgravity (an almost weightless environment) was very suited for space research, he applied for the program. Against considerable competition, Wang was chosen as a payload specialist astronaut on June 5, 1983.

On April 29, 1985, Wang lifted off on the STS-51-B Challenger space shuttle flight, which lasted until May 6. Wang spent seven days and eight minutes in space. Wang was principal investigator of the Spacelab 3 drop dynamics experiments. Mortified when his first experiment failed on the second day of the mission, he pleaded with NASA bureaucrats to give him extra time to fix his setup despite an ultratight time schedule. When NASA refused, he threatened not to return to Earth, alarming mission control. Supported by his fellow astronauts, he was finally given extra time. Wang repaired his experiments’

compartment and successfully finished his research. In addition to contributing to pure science, his space experiments had positive implications for finding a cure for diabetes.

Upon his return to Earth as the first ethnic Chinese astronaut, Wang was awarded the NASA Space Flight Medal and celebrated the Taylor G. Wang Recognition Day on October 11, 1985, in Washington, D.C. Many more public awards followed.

In 1988, Wang became Centennial Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and the director of the Center for Microgravity Research and Applications. His research and subsequent patents for his inventions focused on drop dynamics in containerless environments. In 1992, Wang’s experiments for drops in zero gravity were carried out by scientists aboard the space shuttle carrying the U.S. Microgravity Laboratory 1. In 1993, Wang was appointed director of the Applied Physics Program at Vanderbilt. In 1995, Wang’s experiments in designing encapsulations for living cells were performed in the space shuttle’s U.S. Microgravity Laboratory 2.

Over the next years, Wang’s inventions gradually moved from the field of pure physics to applications in bioengineering. Wang focused on ways to create stable shells for cells, embedded in drops that could carry capsules with beneficial islets to combat the disease of diabetes. The primary challenge was to create custom-designed capsules that protected the cells inside them and that did not trigger a body’s immune system to attack and destroy them. Here, Wang’s inventions yielded him three more patents, granted in 1995-1996. An application for a patent for his invention of a multimembrane immunoisolation system for cellular transplants was filed in 2006. A patent for capsule patches for cellular transplantation without immunosuppression was filed in 2008.

Wang continued to teach and conduct research at Vanderbilt University and did not plan to retire until his experiments were finished successfully. He continued to work on inventing new designer capsules for cells that can deliver their beneficial content to a diabetes patient without causing the body’s immune system to destroy them before their healing mission is accomplished.

Impact

Wang has been an outstanding scientist who realized early that experiments in space could contribute greatly to new knowledge and inventions in his field of fluid mechanics and solid-state physics. He was a visionary who designed new experiments leading to new knowledge when successfully carried out aboard the space shuttle. His personal courage and determination to become an astronaut-scientist added adventure to his endeavors as physicist. He inspired many young people both to embark on a scientific career and to participate in space exploration. He has been awarded many prizes for his contributions as scientist, inventor, and citizen. In 2007, Wang was honored as a White House state ceremony participant and received the Distinguished Science and Technology Award at the Asian American Engineer of the Year Award ceremony of the National Engineers Week Foundation.

Once Wang invented new ways of engineering customized capsules for cells transported in drops and bubbles, he successfully joined his research in pure physics to the field of bioengineering. He sought to ensure that his capsules were useful in future medicine and contributed to the fight against diabetes. His work came to stand at the nexus of physics and medicine.

By 2008, Wang held twenty-six patents and had two more in the application process. By that time, he had authored one book, edited another, contributed four textbook chapters, and published more than two hundred scientific articles that contributed greatly to the understanding of the mechanics of drops and bubbles in a microgravity environment and novel protective cell capsules.

—R. C. Lutz

Further Reading

Subramanian, Ram Shankar, and R. Balasubramaniam.

The Motion of Bubbles and Drops in Reduced Gravity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Chapter 1.3 discusses how rotation of a drop can be achieved by using an acoustic field as discovered by Wang in 1974; a device that employs this technique was flown on the space shuttle. Good overview of some results of Wang’s early inventions.

Wang, Taylor G. “A Scientist in Space.” Engineering and Science (January, 1986): 17-23. A self-portrait in the journal published by the California Institute of Technology written upon Wang’s return from his space shuttle mission. Background on Wang as scientist, inventor, and astronaut. Rare journal worth obtaining from intralibrary loan. _, ed. Drops and Bubbles: Third International

Colloquium, Monterey, CA, 1988. Reprint. New York: American Institute of Physics, 1998. Collection of scientific reports in the field of drops and bubbles edited by Wang, general chairman of the colloquium. Contains “Dynamics of Thin Liquid Sheets” by Wang and his colleague Chun P. Lee, which offers a glimpse into the research that helped Wang take part in the 1985 space shuttle flight. _, et al. “The Role of Viscosity and Surface Tension in Bubble Entrapment During Liquid Drop Impact onto a Deep Liquid Pool.” Journal of Fluid Mechanics, no. 578 (2007): 119-138. Scientific article outlining results of Wang’s research taking off from his prior patent for making a novel reactor to create capsules with uniform membranes. Describes physical circumstances encountered in the process analyzed. _, et al. “Successful Allotransplantation of Encapsulated Islets in Pancreatectomized Canines for Diabetic Management Without the Use of Immunosuppression.” Transplantation 85, no. 3 (2008): 331337. Scientific article summarizing the research of Wang and his team on creating capsules for cells that can deliver beneficial biological content to sufferers of diabetes . Research is influenced by Wang’s groundbreaking patent of making capsules that protect cells that carry this content.

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