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Zhenan Bao: recovering the sense of touch

25 April 2017


Professor Zhenan BAO, laureate of the 2017 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award for North America
© L'Oréal Foundation

Thanks to the unique polymer skin she has developed, Professor Zhenan Bao could help prosthesis users regain the sense of touch. Her work focuses on transforming these polymers into an electronic skin that is as sensitive to touch as our skin, by turning them into conducting materials. She received the 2017 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award for North America, in recognition of her research.

Potential applications for such a skin could soon see the light of day, says Prof. Bao. She arrived in the United States in 1990 when she was still in a first year student at the Nanjing University in China, where her mother was a chemistry professor and her father was a physics professor. She obtained her PhD in organic chemistry five years later and began work at the prestigious Bell Labs, which specialize in telecoms and computing. Since then, she has co-published roughly 400 scientific papers and has received more than 40 awards and distinctions. She also has more than 60 patents to her name.

In 2015, the journal Nature included her in their top ten people who had an important impact on science. That year, she published a remarkable paper about an electronic skin that was sensitive to touch. The electronic skin, made from a special polymer film, was developed in her chemical engineering laboratory at Stanford University. It is made up of a printed electronic circuit and a pressure sensor. When pressure signals were applied, the electronic skin produced electric pulses that were used to successfully stimulate the brain. Such signals can be sent to a computer or, if properly interfaced, to the human brain. If coated onto prostheses, the electronic skin could, for example, help amputee patients recover their sense of touch.

Eager to develop real-world applications for her research, Prof. Bao co-founded a start-up in 2010. Her aim is not only to create innovative materials but also to develop prototype devices that exploit these materials. Her need see her ideas and inventions through arose perhaps from her childhood, spent in the labs on the campus where her parents taught. “My father was a physicist and my mother a chemist. I remember playing with distilled water squeezy bottles as a child, and being fascinated by the color change of pH papers and the beautiful patterns of microprocessors on a silicon wafer.”

Now a mother of two children herself, the researcher recognizes her parent’s influence on her choice of career. Other supportive role models strengthened her resolve - Edwin Chandross, previously a manager of Bell Labs, and Elsa Reichmanis, also previously a manager at Bell Labs and now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. At 45, she admits that her biggest challenge was to understand who she was, and what she was best at – a must for having confidence in yourself, she says, and for overcoming the challenges that come with a career in science.

The 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

The 2017 Edition of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards Ceremony celebrated 5 eminent women scientists and their excellence, creativity and intelligence. For the past 19 years, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme has worked to honour and accompany women researchers at key moments in their careers. Since the programme began, it has supported more than 2,700 young women from 115 countries and celebrated 97 Laureates, at the peak of their careers, including professors Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Ada Yonath, who went on to win a Nobel Prize. The Awards are presented every year to five women, one from each world region (Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America).