Living in two cultures an asset, he says
A researcher holds a contact lens imprinted with an electronic circuit. (Courtesy University of Washington)
Washington -- Computer displays that fit into contact lenses, machines that assemble themselves, tools that let a doctor see precisely which of your cells has cancer, and nanodevices that monitor your health and dispense medicines -- these are just some of the projects that Iranian-American scientist and researcher Babak Parviz of the University of Washington is pursuing.
In an age of narrow specialization, a list of Parviz's accomplishments looks like that of several different scientists rather than just one. Parviz is a leader in such exotic topics as bionanotechnology, self-assembly, nanofabrication and microelectricalmechanical engineering.
He is also doing his bit to overcome the stereotype of research scientists as dry-as-dust nerds. In a recent interview, Parviz spoke with youthful informality and the unabashed curiosity of someone fascinated with the possibilities of the world around him. "I would like to learn as much as possible. I know there's a tremendous body of knowledge out there that I don't possess. I'm attempting to educate myself," he said.
If there is a great deal out there that Parviz hasn't learned, it is not for want of trying. After gaining an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, he earned graduate degrees in physics as well as electrical engineering and a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry and chemical biology. In his spare time, he picked up a degree in English literature.
RESEARCH ACROSS DISCIPLINES
Parviz's list of honors shows that he isn't simply hopscotching from one research area to another, but is doing groundbreaking work in each of them. He has won prizes for work on genomic research, a Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Michigan and the Kharazmi Award for design of a single-engine airplane, among other prizes.
In 2007 he picked up a National Science Foundation award for early career development and an award for young innovators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology magazine Technology Review. Both awards were for his groundbreaking work in using the properties of differing components to get them to assemble themselves into microelectromechanical devices.
"Our inspiration is from nature," Parviz says of this work. "What happens in nature is that the parts self-assemble. Can we design something that assembles itself?"
Despite his continuing research in the field, that is last year's news. This year the protean scientist has gained international attention for early development in what the news media have called "bionic vision." He and his team of researchers are "trying to see if we can put a computer display directly onto a contact lens," he says. This would allow wearers to see the display from their laptops or iPhones or BlackBerrys superimposed on the world around them.
"The [potential] applications are immense," Parviz says. In addition to using contact lenses as a computer display, he envisions the lenses helping doctors diagnose illness by reading changes in the cells of the eye, reducing the need for invasive blood tests. The lenses, he says, might even be designed to dispense medicine. Another possibility is to lend the wearer super-vision, as if looking through powerful binoculars.
Though still a long way from realizing any of these goals, his team has for the first time placed an imprinted electronic circuit and lights on a contact lens. "What we have done so far is to show that the key technologies that are necessary to get there are feasible," Parviz says.
SOMETHING HELPFUL, SOMETHING COOL
The motto of his Parviz Research Group is straightforward: "Our job is to invent things and make them," he says. "There are a couple of things that drive us. One is to see if we can make something that will help other people." He adds that the members of the group also like to ask themselves, "Can we do something that's cool?"
Parviz was born in Tehran and earned his first degree from Sharif University before coming to the United States to further his education. After earning master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan, he joined Harvard University's Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2001 before taking a faculty position with the University of Washington in Seattle. He also works in key positions with a number of research centers in the state of Washington and elsewhere. He still gets home to Iran about once a year to visit his parents, he says.
If his directness seems particularly American, he clearly owes much to his Iranian heritage, too. Of his bachelor's degree in English literature that he has added to his doctoral, master's and bachelor's degrees in engineering and master's in physics, he says, "I'm Persian, and literature is appreciated in that culture."
In Persian culture, he says, "from a very early age you get inculcated in appreciating both science and culture." He's particularly interested in late 19th- and early 20th-century American writers. "The liberal arts showed me that there are different ways of thinking about issues and problems," he adds.
Reflecting on living in two cultures, Iranian and American, he says: "Just being familiar with other cultures and countries is useful ... both sides benefit significantly. One thing that breeds animosity is unfamiliarity with others. The more we know about each other, the less chance there is that one will take any drastic steps to harm the other."
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