Zan Gao

"Everything here is fantastic! The professors are knowledgeable and the research facilities are advanced!"

Zan Gao is a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering. Google Scholar Page

Describe your current UVA engineering research.

My research focuses on the development of next-generation flexible energy storage systems with mechanical durability and electrochemical stability. Specifically, I have successfully derived flexible conductive carbon substrates from natural cotton textile and creatively employed them to design next-generation flexible supercapacitors and flexible batteries. In order to push up the energy storage capability of the flexible supercapacitors, I synthesized a series of nanostructured electrochemically active materials, such as core/shell NiCo2O4@NiCo2O4, core/shell CoO@NiO, and flower-like Co-Al LDH nanoarrays, which were elaborately deposited on the individual activated cotton textile (ACT) fibers to improve the energy storage capability of the flexible supercapacitors.

I also did original research work on the hybridization of the flexible solar cell and flexible supercapacitor to develop self-sustainable power pack all through a scalable roll-to-roll manufacturing process, which can simultaneously harvest and store solar energy. In additional flexible supercapacitors, I further explored more applications of the flexible ACTs and designed high-performance flexible batteries via depositing electrochemical active sulfur and nickel sulfide nanoparticles on individual ACT fibers. Recently, I am working on the fundamental understanding of the coupling between mechanical deformations and electrochemical performance and their collective influence on the flexible energy storage systems.

Beyond the energy storage, I am also fascinated by the beauty of nanomaterials. The smallest particle may possess the power to change the world.  For instance, our recent findings demonstrate that the specifically designed nanoparticles can be used to target the tumor cells and “turn off” their multidrug resistance, which can create a five-day therapeutic window for chemotherapy. Such a nanomaterial-enabled therapeutic window could lower the dose of chemotherapy drugs to patients and increase the chemotherapy treatment outcome, meanwhile, minimizing the drug toxicity to healthy organs.

Awards, scholarships, UVA community programs and clubs

Volkswagen Group of North America Fellowship, University of Virginia, 2017
Travel fund for 2017 ARPA-E Summit-Student Program, University of Virginia, 2017 (100 graduate-level students were selected to attend the ARPA-E Student Program)
Outstanding Graduate Students, Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, University of Virginia. 2016
Executive Board, Electrochemical Society (ECS) Student Center at UVA

UVA research projects and advisors

NSF project on "Flexible Core/Shell Nanocable – Carbon Microfiber Hybrid Composite Electrodes for High-Performance Supercapacitors" – Advisor: Xiaodong (Chris) Li

When did you know you wanted to be an engineer? What drew you to mechanical engineering?

When I was a child, I dreamed of being a scientist. In high school, I was fascinated by the magic of chemistry and physics. Therefore, I decided to pursue the engineering field of academics. I started my engineering study in Environmental Engineering when I was an undergraduate student. Four years later, I found that there were a lot of scientific mechanisms behind the engineering I cannot understand well. Therefore, I transferred to study chemistry, with the hope of thoroughly understanding the fundamental scientific principles behind the engineering practice. Three years later, I noticed that science can only benefit society well through the engineering way. Finally, I moved back the broadest engineering discipline – Mechanical Engineering – to pursue a Ph.D. degree and focused on the design of next-generation energy storage devices with better performance.

Why did you choose MAE?

I transferred to UVA from the University of South Carolina in 2013, when my advisor Chris Li moved here as a Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor. I still clearly remember the first time I came to UVA, I was totally attracted to its unique architecture, beautiful scenery, and special history. Everything here is fantastic! The professors are knowledgeable and the research facilities are advanced! Then, I realized that UVA was the place I was looking for.

What do you plan to do with your degree?

To be a professor is my dream. I am planning to find a faculty position or a postdoc position to continue my career in academia when I graduate.  

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us about your experience?

When I was young, I never imaged that one day I could study abroad in such a great university like UVA. I just focus on what I can do and do it better. I always appreciate everything I've had and every person I've met. Life is a journey, you never know what will happen tomorrow, just live in the present and enjoy your life.

"Stay hungry and stay foolish. Never refuse to be better. I always told myself, "You are only as good as your next paper."