Meet our new Head of School, Professor Guangzhao Mao

UNSW Chemical Engineering is thrilled to introduce our new Head of School, Professor Guangzhao Mao

“I was amazed when I toured UNSW’s campus. The Science and Engineering Building alone is one of the best-equipped chemical engineering buildings I have ever seen.”

Professor Guangzhao Mao, Head of School, UNSW Chemical Engineering

There were two things that tipped the balance for Professor Guangzhao Mao when she was offered the position of Head of School for Chemical Engineering at UNSW, and both took her by surprise at first.

“I was very comfortable in my position as Chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where I had worked for the last 25 years; so, when UNSW approached me to discuss opportunities, I found the idea completely radical,” she says.

“However, I was amazed when I toured UNSW’s campus. The Science and Engineering Building alone is one of the best-equipped chemical engineering buildings I have ever seen, and I’ve visited close to 100 similar facilities in my career.”

In addition to the facilities, it was UNSW’s strategic focus on being Australia’s Global University that she found really exciting. “The second thing that attracted me, and where I really hope to contribute, is the University’s focus on global impact,” she continues.

“UNSW Engineering has an excellent reputation in teaching and research. UNSW Chemical Engineering is ranked in the top 50 globally by QS World, but it’s still not that well known, particularly in the United States. As a researcher with strong links both there and in Europe I see boosting the School’s international reputation as a really tangible contribution I can make.”

Originally from China, Prof Mao did her undergraduate degree in chemistry at Nanjing University, China, before moving to the United States to do her PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She then moved to Wayne State University where she progressed swiftly through the academic ranks on the back of ground-breaking research, until opportunity at UNSW came knocking.

Prof Mao’s research expertise is in applying nanotechnology for making functional materials and devices. Her work is split into two main streams. The first is nanomedicine for targeted drug delivery. The second relates to applying a particular type of crystallisation to the manufacture of nanosensors.

“My nanomedicine work is based on a patented discovery we made several years ago, where we found we could combine gold nanoparticles (as drug carriers), with a transporter protein, and a drug that treats breathing problems associated with spinal cord injury. We are in the pre-clinical stage, but our results are looking very promising,” she says.

This work, which is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is significant because most patients with severe spinal cord injuries rely completely on mechanical apparatuses to breathe, often for the rest of their lives. This means their quality of life is often quite poor.

“There are drugs available, but we can’t get them where they are needed without a dosage too toxic for patients to tolerate. We are hoping our research will reduce the dosage to less than 0.1% of the current dosage and completely eliminate the side effects,” she continues.

Prof Mao says her other main research stream combines nanotechnology with fundamental research she has been doing on crystallisation that goes back many years.

“As a basic unit operation for chemical engineering processing, crystallisation is used by many industries. About a decade ago we made a discovery whereby we could change the shape of the crystal, making them elongated, into what we call nanowires or nanorods,” she explains.

Immediately realising this discovery could have useful applications, she started researching whether she could use it in a new manufacturing method to create nanosensors.

“Even though nanotechnology has been around for a long time, you still don’t see a lot of nanotechnology-based products on the market because of the manufacturing difficulties inherent working with things so small. Our idea makes life easier because it uses current chip manufacturing technology,” Prof Mao explains.

By applying an electrical pulse in an electrolyte solution, Prof Mao says they are able to deposit a sensor unit directly onto the microchip. Her team has developed a prototype sensor for ammonia and, if the idea is successful, they will have developed a new manufacturing method for nanowire sensors that can be mass-produced for market. Possible uses include products for both defence and civilian applications.

“I have an ongoing project funded by the US Air Force to put nanowire sensors in pocket-sized micro-drones. The idea being that soldiers in the field have them to hand should they need to detect a chemical release in the environment. Civilian applications include personal safety devices for environmental monitoring in the chemical industry, for example.”

With an impressive background in interdisciplinary, collaborative work, Prof Mao’s priorities as Head of School includes increasing synergies within the different research specialities of the school, and increasing multidisciplinary opportunities within UNSW and internationally.

“I want to focus sharply on the School’s global impact, in both research and education, and help the School better define itself so the outside world will easily understand what UNSW Chemical Engineering stands for,” she says.

Professor Mao is currently building her new lab at UNSW. If you are interested in being involved, please contact her directly: guangzhao.mao@unsw.edu.au.

By Penny Jones

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