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Photo of Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma
2/14/2018

UW-Madison researcher’s quest for knowledge yields innovations, honors

Written By: Will Cushman

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Zhenqiang “Jack” Ma has a lot on his plate.

Ma’s office, on the third floor of UW-Madison’s Engineering Hall, often hosts a dizzying bustle of graduate students and postdocs—at the moment Ma mentors 18, but he’s led as many as 33 at a time.

In his office, huddled over computer screens, Ma consults with an endless stream of students as they hustle to complete a funding application, to confer research progress or to submit their next manuscript for publication. Ma, the Lynn H. Matthias Professor and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in electrical and computer engineering, is currently responsible for steering nine federal research grants, and his team generates dozens of papers describing their findings every year. The workload is enough to make even a peppy go-getter wish for a slow drip of caffeine.

Not so with Ma.

“People drink coffee to perk up, but I don’t need to do that. Every day I have to drink calming tea,” Ma says, producing a box of tea from a cupboard above his desk. “I need it to calm down, so I can quietly work because I am too excited about my research. Every day I’m extremely excited about it.”

Ma’s enthusiasm for his research is both intellectual and deeply personal. A graduate of China’s Tsinghua University, Ma hails from Shandong, a province in eastern China that has sustained a culture since the time of Confucius—perhaps its most famous resident—that reveres the pursuit of knowledge.

When he was young, Ma says his parents would tell him that nothing is more important than knowledge. “Where I am from, people really respect knowledge,” he says.

More than money or other earthly possessions, Ma says that the opportunity to influence the world through the discovery process of science and the invention of new technologies is what ultimately drives him. “I want to do something long-lasting and impactful,” Ma says.

And he’s well on his way because, as with the success of many people, Ma says he is following a clear path to his goals.

That path has become even more focused in recent years. As a student, Ma was a bit of an omnivore: He received two bachelor’s degrees from Tsinghua, in applied physics and automation control, then in the United States, he earned two master’s degrees and finally a PhD in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Michigan. Along the way, he studied physics, industrial engineering, statistics, nuclear engineering, materials science in schools and philosophy by himself.

His diverse academic appetite has been central to his success. For example, Ma says that his pondering of Engel’s second law of materialism dialectics —the law of the passage of quantitative changes into qualitative changes—helped plant the seed for an idea that eventually led to his breakthrough discovery in 2010 of lattice-mismatched semiconductor heterostructures.

Ma has high hopes for the line of research, which he’s continuing to explore with the backing of various large U.S. Department of Defense grants. He envisions that it will eventually lead to revolutions in everything from energy efficiency to wireless communications to reconnaissance and imaging. Essentially, anything that relies on semiconductor heterostructure technology could be improved through his fundamental discovery, which could allow manufacturers to create highly specialized semiconductors, Ma says.

He has so many ideas for applications related to the discovery that he cannot even begin to adequately list them. And it’s only one of three areas—Ma imposed this limit on himself several years ago to help focus his energy—where Ma and his research team maintain active lines of inquiry.

The two other areas are synthetic biology and flexible electronics—two fields ripe for innovation with lasting societal consequences, Ma believes. It’s in flexible electronics and flexible optoelectronics where Ma has received most of his professional recognition to date. Indeed, in the 2017-18 academic year, Ma has been named a fellow of five scientific organizations—including The Optical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, IEEE, the American Physical Society, and the National Academy of Inventors—with a sixth on the way. Ma says he is honored by the recognition, but he remains primarily driven by his deep curiosity and desire to make a mark on the world. (Read about Jack Ma’s research collaborations and his commitment to the Wisconsin Idea.)

“I always think about what I can do academically and for society and the world that can have long-lasting influence,” Ma says. “The only thing that can remain after you leave is the knowledge you created. If the knowledge I contribute can change the world, I will be satisfied.”