By Kristen Bailey | Photos by Allison Carter December 19, 2018
This is the fourth installment of a yearlong series about women at Georgia Tech. See the full series.
Even before Hang Lu found her career focus, she knew she wanted to do something different.
As she was finishing her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she found her interest wandering to other disciplines. She took a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in a medical school studying neurogenetics.
“It was partially serendipitous. I didn’t know this was the thing I would do,” she said, referring to her research work. But those two years gave her a chance to test things, explore, and — as she puts it — play.
Lu in her office in the Krone Engineered Biosystems Building.
“That creativity part of research is really important — to be in a space that is weird initially was helpful in seeing opportunities,” Lu said.
Now, the Love Family Professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE) leads a team of around 20 full-time researchers. Lu’s office in the Krone Engineered Biosystems Building is light, surrounded by people from other disciplines, and prominently features nematodes — all symbolic of her studies.
She arrived at Georgia Tech 14 years ago because her advisors told her it was on the rise. The undergraduate program is now ranked No. 2, and graduate No. 7, and Lu has been part of that ascension.
What she didn’t know was the community she’d find.
“The quality of my colleagues and students, the quality of the facilities, and the collegiality here are really amazing,” Lu said. She’s heard stories from other universities of infighting and egos getting in the way of researchers collaborating. But here, every day, she works with people from other disciplines, even those outside of engineering.
“The quality of my colleagues and students, the quality of the facilities, and the collegiality here are really amazing.”
She’s most thankful for the collaborative atmosphere — which is designed into the Krone Building — for the experience it gives students working in the lab. In addition to Lu’s fulltime research team, she employs 10-15 undergraduates each semester.
“If you can only talk to people in the lab, it’s less fun,” she said. “Science these days is done in a social way. That’s not how it was done 200 years ago, or even 50 or 30 years ago. Now, you can’t possibly learn everything, so we collaborate with a lot of other people.”
Lu also directs Georgia Tech’s Bioengineering Interdisciplinary Graduate Program, which lets graduate students from engineering, computing, and sciences work with faculty from other disciplines, including some at Emory University.
“Students have the opportunity to come from any home school and apply their skills to a biological problem. The quality of students is extremely high and the cross-pollination of different areas makes the research really interesting.”
Beyond collaboration, Lu makes a point of providing opportunities for professional growth for the students on her team. In their weekly lab meetings, she usually devotes half an hour to a nonscientific topic — diversity, gender issues, scientific integrity, patents, elevator speeches, and mental health have all been topics in the path. The lab even has a Slack channel where students can share ideas for discussion.
Building confidence and battling imposter syndrome is something Lu works on with all of her students, regardless of gender.
“Many scientists have a feeling of not being good enough or doing well enough. I tell my trainees objectively that they are good enough and that they should own their success.”