A Life of Accomplishment

Chen TsaiUC Irvine Chancellor’s Professor Chen Tsai has devoted nearly half a century to seeking innovation in the field of electrical engineering and applied science. His efforts recently were recognized by the IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics and Frequency Control Society, which awarded him its 2013 lifetime achievement award.

Tsai, who came to The Henry Samueli School of Engineering in 1980 from Carnegie Mellon University, was recognized with the society’s highest honor for his pioneering contributions to the “science and technology of integrated acousto-optics and magneto-optics, scanning acoustic microscopy, and ultrasonic monodisperse micro-droplet generation.”

Tsai has been actively involved in all three research areas for years.

Integrated acousto- or magneto-optics is the technology of incorporating tiny acoustic, magnetic and/or optical components onto chip substrates. When Tsai began working in integrated optics, the science was “in its infancy,” he says.

His group also conducts research and development on microwave-tunable filters and fiber-silicon waveguide couplers for use in communications. These filters, made of magnetic materials and tuned by a magnetic field, let desired data signals pass while blocking others within a broadband data signal. The couplers, made with nano-photonic technology, are used for ultra-wideband fiber optic communication systems.

But it is Tsai’s third research area that, he believes, carries the greatest potential for commercialization. In an ongoing collaboration with the medical schools at UCI and UC San Diego, he and his research group are developing patented MEMS-based ultrasonic nozzles to serve as pulmonary drug-delivery systems. Because the nozzles deliver narrowly confined micron-sized droplets, they are more efficient and cost effective than current inhaler devices. Possible applications, Tsai says, include the proficient delivery of antidotal drugs in a large-scale cyanide poisoning scenario.

When Tsai first arrived at UCI, the university didn’t have a cleanroom microfabrication facility, which was necessary for his work in integrated-optic chips. “I was doing small, tiny devices, so I had to establish a small-scale micro-engineering facility for fabrication. I convinced the dean and [another] administrator that every research university needs a cleanroom,” he says. Tsai and colleague Chin Lee opened the university’s first such facility in the Engineering Tower, an effort that led to the creation of the Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility.

The electrical engineer got his first taste of biomedical research in the late 1990s, when he was tapped as the founding director of the Institute for Applied Science and Engineering at the highly regarded Academia Sinica in Taiwan. A one-year UCI sabbatical turned into a four-year stint as he built the new institute from the ground up. “Everybody considered biomedical research and bioengineering as the future. So when I came back to UCI I wanted to get more involved.”

Tsai’s long list of accolades includes the 2007 Distinguished Alumnus Award for Research Achievement from National Taiwan University; membership in Academia Sinica, the Taiwanese equivalent of the National Academies (2000), and the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences (2001); the UC Irvine Faculty Senate Distinguished Faculty Lectureship for Research (1995); the International Micro-optics Award from the Optical Society of Japan and the Japanese Applied Physics Society (1995); and Fellowship in five professional societies.

As for his most recent award, Tsai is enormously grateful. “I’m extremely honored because that is the most prestigious award for distinguished research. So I’m extremely honored to have it bestowed on me. I share this recognition with all of my former and current research students and visiting scholars. I am also most grateful to my wife, Shirley, for her unconditioned support and the mentors for their support and encouragement.”

Tsai and Shirley, who is a UCI adjunct professor of chemical engineering and materials science, will travel to Prague, Czech Republic, in July, where he will receive his award certificate, a plaque and a $2,000 honorarium at the 2013 IEEE International Ultrasonics Symposium.

--Anna Lynn Spitzer