Sixth SFU student nets top national graduate award

June 29, 2006, volume 36, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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It took years of study and research, in between honing a second language and raising a family, but Yonghong Bing, a Simon Fraser University chemistry graduate, is enjoying the fruits of her labour.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), a federal research-funding agency, recently awarded the immigrant from eastern China, now living in Coquitlam, its prize for the top doctoral research in science and engineering.

NSERC annually awards only four of the coveted prizes across Canada, which include $10,000 cash and a silver medal. Bing is the sixth SFU graduate to win the prize since 1992, making SFU the third ranked university in this competition.

“This year's award is a special reflection of SFU's commitments to accessibility and interdisciplinarity, with the award going to a female international student whose PhD thesis in chemistry was awarded the top prize in engineering,” says SFU President Michael Stevenson.

Bing pursued her doctoral research under the supervision of chemistry professor Zuo-Guang Ye, the director of solid-state systems at 4D LABS. “Her work is a preview of the type of high-level interdisciplinary research emerging from this new advanced materials institute at SFU,” notes Stevenson.

Bing has discovered a new family of a unique group of crystals that has powers akin to the Pillsbury Dough Boy and a science fiction-type shape shifter. Piezoelectric crystals make formidable transducers, a key component of medical, commercial and industrial probes.

 The crystals generate electricity when they are squeezed or when mechanical pressure is applied to them. They owe their name to the meaning of the Greek prefix piezo—to press or squeeze. Piezoelectric crystals also change shape or move when they are electrified.

Transducers are devices that sense environments and activate processes based on their ability to convert mechanical energy to electrical energy and vice versa. A single crystal can perform both conversions. It's the ideal material for making electromechanical transducers that sense and activate a multitude of processes, such as ultrasonic wave generation and echo detection.

The new family of crystals is more malleable than conventional ones when heated at various temperatures. Bing's discovery will lead to more efficient electromechanical transducers in medical ultrasonic diagnostics and therapy, machine tool control, vibration suppression, undersea communication and wireless telecommunications.

“In medical imaging and diagnosing, the higher piezoelectric response could lead to more reliable diagnosis of fetal, organ and other types of malformations, and suspicious lumps,” says Bing's doctoral supervisor. “Higher performing crystals could also lead to real time and non-invasive 3D imaging and diagnosis of almost all parts of the human body.”

Several highly ranked academic journals, including Nature Materials, have published Bing's discovery, which has also earned her a two-year, $80,000 NSERC postdoctoral fellowship that she is taking up at Seattle's University of Washington.

Bing acknowledges her rise to scientific stardom hasn't come easily—it was 16 years in the making.

She  earned an undergraduate degree in optics engineering and a master's in materials science in China. After working for a number of years as a university researcher, she, her husband and her now nine-year-old son moved to the United States.

As a visiting scholar at Penn State University, Bing crystallized her interest in piezoelectric materials and honed her English. Ye, who discovered Bing while attending a conference at Penn State, persuaded her to do her doctorate at SFU.

“The last eight years—living in new countries, leaving family in China, and raising a child while studying, researching and improving my English—have been a real challenge. I am glad it has been so fruitful,” laughs Bing. “I have to thank my husband who helped a lot with the housework and Dr. Ye for his mentorship. Living in residence with my family and having excellent daycare right next door also helped.”

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