A collaborative effort to create human-integrated electronics

When Yahao Dai was a child, he read in a textbook about a future in which computers were miniaturized and integrated into the human skin. 

“I thought, ‘That’s so cool,’” he said, though the concept still seemed like science fiction. “At that time, the iPhone had not come out and people were still using Windows XP on their bulky desktop computers.” Fast forward to nearly two decades later, and Dai himself is creating human-integrated electronics as a graduate student in the lab of Asst. Prof. Sihong Wang

In between was a journey of curiosity — one that led him to both pursue new knowledge and ultimately rewire his brain to conduct research and collaborate with other scientists and engineers across disciplines in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago.

“UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering is home to a diverse student body from many different disciplines,” he said. “It's rare to find so many research interests working together. That was really exciting for me as a researcher.”

Collaborating across disciplines 

While an undergraduate student in China, Dai spent two months in the lab of Prof. Stuart Rowan through a summer program. That experience led him to apply to get his PhD at PME, with the goal of studying materials science. 

“UChicago had a great academic reputation, and PME has a bunch of groups working in totally different fields,” he said. “It’s hard to find an engineering school with this much diversity in research interests.” 

In Wang’s lab, Dai studies functional materials for human-integrated electronics. That means developing rubber-like materials that can stretch and bend with the human body while also providing the basis for electronic functions, like signal transduction and processing. These integrated electronics platforms can read a variety of biological signals from the human body, from electrophysical signals like heartbeats to chemical signals.  

To create such electronics, Dai, a polymer expert, collaborates with other students within his lab who are experts in other areas including electrical engineering and organic synthesis. They also work closely with labs across campus and with scientists at Argonne National Laboratory. 

“Sometimes you come up with a crazy idea that you think is impossible or naive, and then you talk with someone working in that field, and you realize it could be possible,” Dai said.

Putting ideas into practice

Through his hard work, Dai received the Graduate Student Award given by the Materials Research Society, one of the highest honors for students in the field. He also received the Harper Dissertation Fellowship from UChicago, the top award given to a PhD student from the university. 

“When you receive awards like this, you get the chance to meet with other awardees with the same passion for research as you do,” he said. “That’s very inspiring and exciting.” 

When Dai earns his PhD, he hopes to pursue a postdoctoral research position and ultimately find a faculty position in academia.  

“From reading that textbook until now, the only change is I gained the knowledge I need to be able to implement solutions and make contributions,” he said. “My curiosity is still the same as it was then and has never changed." 

Click here for more information on the Molecular Engineering PhD and PME’s other world-class programs.