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Father of the nanoscale forest

Person-to-person: Yin-Ting “Tim” Yeh
4 September 2019

Yin-Ting “Tim” Yeh, as a graduate student at Penn State, drew from a breadth of scientific disciplines to devise and produce the carbon-nanotube array at the heart of the CNT-STEM

Doing multidisciplinary science isn't easy, but Tim Yeh certainly seems to think it's worth the effort. 

"You have to be willing to take the challenge," he declared, and his track record backs that up. Not only does Yeh have a history of collaboration with scientists in other disciplines, but he himself embodies a unique synthesis of skills and knowledge from multiple fields of study. As an undergraduate in Taiwan, Yeh completed a bachelor's degree in materials science before coming to Penn State for a doctorate in bioengineering. Now an assistant research professor of physics, he has made the rounds of multiple colleges, departments, and disciplines in the course of his own development as well as through his chosen colleagues and collaborators.

It was here at University Park that Yeh's mentor Siyang Zheng engaged him in a collaboration with Eberly researcher Mauricio Terrones. Their first project—using carbon nanotubes to extract plasma from blood—was a success, and from there the team shifted its focus to viruses. 

"I didn't know anything about viruses," Yeh said, "so I had to learn that science from the beginning, from the biologists. And the physics I had to learn almost from the beginning. It was a good challenge."

With that new knowledge, Yeh was able to work with materials experts in the University's Nanofabrication Lab to design a catalyst for growing carbon nanotubes with the precise spacing required to trap viral particles. He grew the nanotubes in a special chamber in Terrones's lab, then returned to the Nanofabrication Lab to assemble them into a microfluidic device—the CNT-STEM.

Housed in the basement of the Millennium Science Complex, the Nanofabrication Lab is part of Penn State's Materials Research Institute, which occupies one of the chevron-shaped complex's two wings, opposite the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. The complex was built specifically to facilitate the convergence of materials and life sciences, and Yeh credits its diverse research culture with enabling breakthroughs such as the CNT-STEM. 

"In the beginning of these collaborations, we don't all share the same scientific language," he said, "but we work together and learn from each other. I think these interdisciplinary fields and people from different backgrounds equip us as a team to tackle and understand the rules of life."

Yeh is by nature inquisitive, outgoing, and empathetic—precisely the sort of person who thrives in the realm of multidisciplinary science—and like his mentor Mauricio Terrones, he is driven by a desire to make a positive impact on the world around him. 

"I really want to understand what's going on," he said. "Can we cure or control infectious diseases? Trying to predict and prevent the next outbreak, and create a vaccine to save lives—that would be my goal."

Yin-Ting “Tim” Yeh