February 3, 2012
If you ask Shan Wang (E'93), serendipity played a big role in propelling the former DSSC grad student to a successful professorial career at Stanford University.
To the outside observer, though, luck had little to do with it.
Wang earned his bachelor of science in physics from China's University of Science and Technology — where he originally fell in love with magnetism — and enrolled in Iowa State University's graduate program in physics through the China-U.S. Physics Examination and Application program. While working on his master's degree, he saw an article by Robert M. White in Physics Today, highlighting the growing excitement for magnetic recording. Not much later, he read an interview with Mark Kryder about the formation of the Magnetics Technology Center (now the Data Storage Systems Center).
Their common bond? Carnegie Mellon. Wang was immediately attracted.
"At that time, I thought magnetism was fascinating, and I thought maybe I could put my knowledge and love for magnetism into more practical use at the Magnetics Technology Center," Wang said. "I applied to the MTC at CMU, and luckily I was admitted."
With his master's degree from Iowa State in hand, Wang began working with then-MTC Director Kryder on developing high-moment soft magnetic materials. After three years, he switched gears and began designing and fabricating inductive write heads for aerial density greater than 2 gbits/in2, research Wang describes as intense. "That was probably one of the hardest-working periods in my life," he said.
That hard work included designing a device with more than 12 mask layers that required countless steps to machine and fabricate. "If all the machines were working, it would take a few months to finish the whole fabrication cycle," Wang said. "But the head we fabricated actually worked and was carried forward by students after me. I think it was considered a DSSC success."
Fortune smiled on Wang in the spring of 1993, only months before he was set to defend his dissertation. Still not sure what he really wanted to do after graduation, Wang learned of a position available at Stanford that required both materials and device experience. He wasn't sure if he wanted to be a professor, but the position seemed perfect. He applied, and before the summer was finished, the job was his.
But maybe it was his work at the MTC — and not just good fortune — that sealed the deal.
"I think what I did at Carnegie Mellon was crucial for me to get the position at Stanford," Wang said. "The DSSC was regarded as the number one center of its kind in the world at that time, and Stanford was looking to boost its research on information storage and materials. It was a good fit," he said.
When he arrived at Stanford as an assistant professor at the end of 1993 (he had to finish his thesis, after all, and train his replacement student), Wang began teaching classes on topics like electronic behavior of materials, introduction to information storage systems and the principles of magnetic recording. Soon he wrote the textbook "Magnetic Information Storage Technology" with co-author Alex Taratorin, and began teaching classes in magnetism and nanostructures, and biochips imaging and magnetic medicine.
In addition to teaching, Wang also continued his research into inductive recording heads, later expanding into giant magnetoresistive (GMR) and magnetic tunnel junction materials. He followed that with research programs in inductors and transformers. "Basically, I started to do things I didn't know before at all!" he said.
Wang argues that such is the nature of academia. While he has more flexibility in terms of time and commitments compared to his industry peers, he needs to generate the funding vital to both his work and that of his graduate students. To keep this stream flowing, he's had to expand his research arm and delve into new areas.
One of those — and the most exciting to him — has been the biochip/biosensor area, where his group has performed ground-breaking research into applying GMR spin valves and magnetic tunnel junction materials to biosensing — things like genotyping, protein assays for cancer diagnostics and cell sorting. "Our work in that area has definitely exceeded my initial expectations for what I could do at Stanford," Wang said. "We were on TV interviews. People call us to see if we can provide a device for them to cure cancer. It's really a very rewarding area we've expanded into."
Nearly two decades after his arrival at Stanford, Wang is now a professor of materials science and electrical engineering, with a courtesy appointment in radiology at the Stanford School of Medicine. He is a co-PI of the Stanford-led Center for Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence and Translation (CCNE-T) and is affiliated with the Geballe Laboratory for Advanced Materials, the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI), Stanford Bio-X Program, and the Cancer Institute and Cardiovascular Institute. He's published more than 190 papers, holds 28 patents, and has delivered more than 100 invited presentations in major scientific conferences and seminars around the globe. He was named an inaugural Frederick Terman Faculty Fellow at Stanford University (94-97), an IEEE Magnetics Society Distinguished Lecturer (2001-2002), was elected an IEEE Fellow (2009), and has garnered a host of awards and honors.
Much of this success, he says, stems from his time at the DSSC.
"While you're a student at the DSSC, you don't really think about what will help you in the future. You look back, though, and see that you really have benefited from the practical focus, the close interaction with industry, the multidisciplinary nature of the center and the innovation we strived for. We really felt that we were working on cutting-edge projects and we weren't afraid to take on any challenges," he said. "There's definitely something very special about the DSSC."
That something special was, among other things, the center's ability to mobilize multiple professors to work on an exiting problem, regardless of discipline, Wang says. His experience at the DSSC also helped condition him to trying new things and new areas of experimentation, especially when his funding options in data storage were shrinking.
"I really had to branch out and develop new research areas. When you do that, you have to be brave," he said. "If you don't know something, you pick up a book, read it and become expert in it. I think I learned a lot of that at the DSSC. That helped me open new areas at Stanford, which has probably been the key to my success here."
Another key to Wang's success has been his experience with professors like Kryder, who gave him advice in 1993 that has guided him throughout his career at Stanford.
"Mark always said that, as a professor, you have to hire great students and then you have to let the great students do great things," Wang said. "Don't tie their hands. That's so true in academia."
After nearly 20 years as a teacher and researcher, Wang holds firm to his goals: to make high-impact research and be a good teacher. And he's excited about what the future holds for his work, including a possible expansion into drug development. "There are so many complicated diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's disease, and few cures," he said. "The rate of drugs coming out of the pipeline is dwindling, so maybe an engineer can contribute to that area."
While Wang might argue that serendipity brought him to Stanford, he offers current DSSC students two concrete ways to be successful in their careers.
"Never underestimate yourself," he said. "And never give up."