With Creativity, Vincent Mao Advances on Ever Smaller, Faster Computers

Vincent MaoAt his high school in Greenville, S.C., Vincent Mao spent his days performing piano concertos. He never expected, just five years after coming to Duke as an undergraduate, to be making strides toward the future of computing. But, now a first-year graduate student in Electrical & Computer Engineering, he says it is in research that he found the balance he had sought all along between his academic and artistic sides.

“I had always shifted between academic and artistic interests,” Mao said. “Engineering offered a chance to apply aspects of both because a lot of design requires thinking outside the box. I enjoy making things and experimenting with how things work -- it involves a certain amount of creative thinking.”

“It takes imagination to do crazy research,” he said, laughing.

For Mao, that “crazy research” involves building the fundamental components that could one day allow for extraordinarily tiny and powerful optical computer circuits on the nanometer scale, built on strands of DNA in place of the traditional silicon.

Optical computers use the photons in visible light, rather than electric current, to perform digital computations, he explained. Electric currents are more difficult to control at such a tiny scale than optical signals, he added.

Mao’s research in nanotechnology first began in his final year as an undergraduate when he started working in assistant professor Chris Dwyer’s lab. Dwyer had sent out an email to students that he was looking for someone to work in his lab for the summer, Mao recalled.

“I jumped on it,” Mao said.

After mulling over the possibilities of medical school or engineering – Mao double majored in biomedical and electrical engineering and still completed his pre-med requirements – his experience in Dwyer’s lab studying nanotechnology sealed the deal.

“Dwyer has a lot of drive as an advisor,” Mao said. “He has lots of ideas and knowledge and an incredible amount of energy and determination to do what he wants to do. His enthusiasm is infectious.”

Mao decided to stay on at Duke as a graduate student working in Dwyer’s lab. In the first phase of his research into optical computing, Mao is building a very sensitive, dual beam spectrofluorometer. Spectrofluorometers take advantage of the fluorescent properties of compounds to provide information about their concentration in a sample.

Mao’s optical instrument is being designed to detect the light emitted by dyes, or fluorescent proteins, attached to two-dimensional DNA tiles, which, if they were big enough to see, would look like tiny tic-tac-toe boards, he said. The use of DNA, put together in special patterns so that it self-assembles into two-dimensional “grids,” could ultimately allow for circuits built of components on the molecular scale.

Eventually, they hope to understand the properties of the grids well enough to predict the exact intensity of light emitted for a given input -- the beginnings of optical computation.

But for now, his research is primarily about learning how light behaves when it passes through lenses in particular orientations and about how sensitive his machine might one day be. He is taking information gleaned from a favorite course in optics directly back to the laboratory where he can test it out.

And he is keeping his mind open to new ideas, even in the most unlikely places. He even found himself at the lab after a party with a handful of glow sticks that had caught his eye.

“I was just hanging out and had the idea to grab some glow sticks,” he said. “I took them back to the lab to measure the intensity of their glow with part of the instrument. It helped me better gauge how sensitive the instrumentation was.” Even though this wasn’t exactly a scientific measurement, Mao points out that even a rough proof-of-concept test can help out during the tough times.

Each time he tests the early version of his optical machine -- whether against a glow stick or a sample fluorescent dye DNA grid -- he learns something he didn’t know before about how it works and how he might improve upon its design.

Only a few months into his graduate work and with his instrument still very much a work in progress, Mao relishes the challenges ahead.

“Grad school is a different ball game from undergrad,” he said. “The focus as an undergraduate is on finding your interests -- exploring things and finding out who you are. In grad school you have to maintain what you’ve learned and focus on developing skills you can use. You have to make your mark -- your contribution to the field.

“But it’s also important to keep a balance. You have to be careful not to focus so hard that you lose perspective on all you’ve learned.”

Mao finds some of that balance by returning to his artistic roots. Despite the busy workload of a budding engineer, he participates in a multicultural dance team, called Defining Movement, which performs everything from traditional dances to hip hop.

He recommends that other students find their own creative outlets. “Always take some time each day to do something different – even if it’s just a few minutes,” he said. “Do something or think about something completely different each day.

“It’s funny; ideas – like the glow stick experiment, for example -- come at the weirdest moments, when you’re thinking about other things.”