From fearlessly entering new fields of science to her passion for science fiction, Lan Yang (MS '00, PhD '05) loves exploring the unknown. Growing up in China, Yang was inspired by the life of Marie Curie, who's groundbreaking work altered medicine and our understanding of radioactivity. Yang is currently the Edwin H. & Florence G. Skinner Professor of Electrical & Systems Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, chief technology officer (CTO) for a company she helped to found, and the editor-in-chief of a science journal. Through these positions, Yang continues to pursue the unknown and grow the science community.
ENGenuity spoke with Yang to learn how Caltech shaped her confidence in scientific exploration, and how she stays motivated despite her demanding schedule.
ENGenuity: How would you describe what you're doing now and your professional contributions?
Lan Yang: Currently, I hold multiple roles that shape my professional journey. Each of my positions contributes to the community differently. First, I serve as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of DeepSight Technology, Inc., a startup I co-founded four years ago. My role as the CTO is to oversee the technology strategy and work with the engineering and product teams to transform the technology into products that one day can make a difference to the world. At DeepSight, we are dedicated to developing new ultrasound-based technologies and imaging systems that can have a broad impact on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Our innovative sensor technology has been driving innovations across all aspects of product development for medical applications, including hardware design, software development and imaging reconstruction. It will enable new medical technologies with the potential to transform healthcare practices through various applications, such as ultrasound imaging with enhanced resolution and clarity, and needle guidance for drug delivery or biopsy. An advanced imaging system like this will offer a valuable alternative in certain cases where patients may prefer to avoid radiation exposure associated with X-rays, CT scans or bulky and complicated MRI systems due to safety concerns.
In addition to my responsibilities as a CTO, I am also privileged to lead a research lab on micro/nanophotonics I founded in 2007 when I joined Washington University in St. Louis as a faculty member in the Electrical and Systems Engineering department. As a professor, I work with my students and postdocs to explore the forefront of science and push forward innovative technologies for applications enabled by our research discoveries. The specific contributions I think I've made to the community as a professor are discovering new science and nurturing young people. This is a fundamental responsibility to me that I feel deeply proud of.
On top of those, I am in my fifth year serving as editor-in-chief for Photonics Research. As for my role as editor-in-chief, growing a high-quality journal is important for the community. I want to take advantage of this opportunity to make this journal a platform to disseminate cutting-edge research and help to grow the community. The responsibility of this role, in my view, extends beyond publication. For example, I started a webinar series that includes interviews with pioneering researchers who have made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of optics. We want to engage with authors, readers, and industry professionals and foster cross-disciplinary collaboration. I have observed the proactive efforts of the editor-in-chief for other journals in implementing various approaches to promote research and encourage young researchers. I am glad to be part of these efforts to facilitate the dissemination of research findings and cultivate a collaborative scientific community.
ENGenuity: Is there an accomplishment you feel most proud of in your career?
Yang: I have never had a fear of entering a new field. One such example was my exploration of non-Hermitian physics. This is an area started in the context of quantum mechanics but was not extensively explored in photonics. I came across this topic by reading papers on parity-time symmetry published in Physical Review Letters and found some ideas that can be implemented by the technique I learned during my time at Caltech; the ideas were related to my PhD work on microlasers achieved by introducing gain medium into high-quality optical whispering-gallery-mode microresonators through a wet-chemical synthesis approach. I realized this was a good use of my expertise. At that time, the exploration of non-Hermitian physics in optical resonators was at its nascent stage, with only a few groups delving into this emerging area. I saw this as an opportunity to make a significant impact. Our first article on demonstrating parity-time-symmetric optical resonators was immediately followed by many groups and helped catalyze the growth of the field. It turns out high-quality photonic resonators are a great platform to implement various unique features associated with non-Hermitian physics.
My recent entrepreneurial adventure in the MedTech industry is another such example that I feel very proud of. From my experiences, I believe the education and training at Caltech gave me no fear to enter a new field. I learned from my research advisor, Kerry Vahala [Ted and Ginger Jenkins Professor of Information Science and Technology and Applied Physics; Executive Officer for Applied Physics and Materials Science], that a free spirit can help cultivate great science. The advice and knowledge I received from him and other great scientists I met during my time at Caltech told me to fearlessly embrace new fields and push the boundaries of science. I am grateful for my experiences at Caltech which shaped me into a researcher and innovator with the aspiration to make meaningful contributions to the scientific community with societal impact.
ENGenuity: What aspect of Caltech do you think contributed to the environment of exploration?
Yang: Caltech has a small campus compared to other schools like Stanford and MIT, but there is a distinct advantage to being at a small campus. It's much easier to start cross-discipline collaborations. Also, because people are closer and run into each other more often, there is a spirit of friendliness. At Caltech, I experienced an open-minded environment where everyone I met embraced new ideas and unexplored opportunities. There were no barriers between groups. All the professors I met, like Harry Atwater [Otis Booth Leadership Chair, Division of Engineering and Applied Science; Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science], and my research advisor, Kerry Vahala, are the kind of scientists that are always open and encourage students to learn new things. They consistently encourage students to explore unfamiliar fields. I recall moments when Kerry encouraged me to explore topics beyond established subjects. He would often express his openness to new ideas. Such encouragement inspired me to fearlessly pursues innovative and groundbreaking work. The mindset of embracing new challenges without hesitation is crucial for driving meaningful advancements in science. It empowers students and researchers to push the boundaries of knowledge and inspire transformative endeavors.
ENGenuity: Were there any other professors or classes at Caltech that had a major impact on you?
Yang: While I had many interesting moments in different courses, I would like to elaborate on Professor Anthony Leonard's [Theodore von Karman Professor of Aeronautics, Emeritus] lectures for AMa 195 on Introductory Methods of Applied Mathematics, which represents a typical example showing how to integrate research discoveries into teaching. Professor Leonard had an exceptional ability to guide students in understanding complex physical problems and their mathematical foundations in an intuitive manner. Following the traces of chalk drawn by him on the blackboard, I was deeply fascinated by the sophisticated equations and functions that were presented in such a clear and elegant way due to his interpretation. Professor Leonard's unique teaching style, seamlessly blending physics and mathematics, made the course especially enlightening for me. It helped me appreciate how physics explains intriguing phenomena in the real world while inspiring the development of mathematical tools such as Bessel functions, Green's functions, and differential equations. His approach further inspired my passion for physics and mathematics through a deeper understanding of the profound interplay between mathematics and the understanding of the natural world.
It's also worth noting the TA for this class, Mr. Sean Mauch, who played an important role in supporting our learning experience. His comprehensive notes, spanning over a thousand pages, provided detailed explanations and step-by-step breakdowns of complex equations. Thanks to his dedication, we were able to navigate through challenging mathematical concepts with greater clarity. In retrospect, the devoted professors and interesting classes with course materials embedded with research at Caltech left an unforgettable mark on my academic journey, growing my passion for interdisciplinary research and influencing the way I approach scientific challenges.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to current Caltech students?
Yang: Take full advantage of the open environment at Caltech. For example, if you're a student in electrical engineering, have no fear to talk with people and professors in other disciplines. Learn multiple fields at the same time.
ENGenuity: What originally drew you to science and Caltech?
Yang: When I was young, I loved STEM. My initial inspiration came from the stories about scientists. The story about how Marie Curie's scientific discovery changed the world is fascinating to me.
When I was in China, we needed to decide our major when we applied to college. My parents wanted me to choose a major that was useful in their eyes like an accountant, lawyer, or doctor. Those were the options my mom wanted me to think about, but I didn't want to do any of those. While these were very good career paths, I felt a strong desire to contribute to society in a different way. I aspired to become someone who could create innovative solutions and leave a legacy by making the world a better place to live. Although it may sound audacious for a young girl to have such aspirations, it was my genuine wish. That's also why I decided to initiate the webinar series as part of my role as editor-in-chief. I realize how role models can influence future generations of young students.
I want to explore the unknown, invent something new, and make a positive impact on the world through my work and interactions with others. Ultimately, this motivated me to become a scientist, educator and entrepreneur. I deeply appreciate the education and training I received at Caltech, which prepared me to excel in my career and contribute to the scientific community, following the footsteps of many great scientists.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story (fictional)?
Yang: There is no particular book or movie that stands out, but in general, I like science fiction, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth written by Jules Verne, who is one of my favorite novelists. I am drawn to stories about adventures and myths, exploring outer space, talking about aliens, or unraveling the mysteries of pre-human cultures. In general, I'm curious about the unknown or futuristic technologies that can inspire our imagination.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Yang: Wherever I'm in a place with people I love. There is no particular place; it's more about the people I hang out with. When my family or friends are around me, they make that place special and enjoyable to me.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Yang: The opportunity to make a positive impact. As a professor, I have the privilege to guide and mentor young students and help them find their own paths and passion. In this process, we also work as a team to explore exciting scientific frontiers. It's incredibly rewarding for me to witness innovative technologies enabled by our scientific discoveries and to see the young researchers grow professionally and succeed. For my role as a CTO, I'm passionate about translating cutting-edge technologies into practical products that can benefit physicians and patients. Using science and technology to improve people's lives is fulfilling to me.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Yang: With a company, there are deadlines with serious consequences. Even if you have the perfect technology, if you cannot make it in a certain time, you will still fail. When I think about the ways our products can revolutionize the future, I feel very excited. But there are urgent deadlines, and sometimes we need to adjust our strategies. These are the kinds of things that can keep me up at night.
ENGenuity: What gets you up in the morning?
Yang: What truly lights up my spirit is the opportunity to transform our science into technologies and turn our disruptive technologies into tangible products that can help public health and human well-being. We hope to see that as soon as possible. It motivates me to work hard to accelerate our progress and bring solutions to those who need them.