Published: Dec. 8, 2021 By

Haichao Wu and Dan Schwartz at Wu's dissertation defense

Haichao Wu (right) with Daniel Schwartz. Photo provided by Wu.

Haichao Wu of the Dan Schwartz Group is the winner of the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s 2021 Outstanding Dissertation Award for “Nanoparticle Tracking to Probe Transport in Porous Media.” This award is a recognition of the quality and excellence of Wu’s research as well as his presentation of the dissertation. 

Porous media — materials containing pores — are used in processes such as food processing, water treatment, pharmaceutical production and more. There are currently no universal models that can predict mass transport due to the complexity of porous media and the coupled dynamic mechanisms at work during the process.

“To address this issue, I have developed refractive index matching imaging systems, combined with single-particle tracking methods to directly visualize the single-particle motion within a variety of porous materials,” Wu said. “I have elucidated the fundamental particle transport mechanisms in porous media, which provided important insights for various application scenarios, including reducing membrane fouling and deploying nanomotors for biomedical applications.”

Wu’s experience as a graduate student in the Dan Schwartz Group helped prepare him for a research career in a number of significant ways.

“The research training in the Schwartz group helped me develop critical thinking and problem solving abilities, which ultimately helped me to evolve as an independent researcher,” Wu said. “The inspiring discussions with my advisor Dan and other labmates have motivated me to think bigger, smarter and bolder, and made me more dedicated to address urgent and important problems in the chemical engineering field.”

Glenn L. Murphy Endowed Professor Daniel Schwartz mentored Wu through his PhD candidacy.

“It was a great pleasure to have a student like Haichao, who is such a creative, curious and fearless researcher,” Schwartz said. “His dissertation was notable for including both fundamental and applied research, and he was required to develop a wide range of abilities, from the synthesis of nanomaterials to super-resolution imaging to computational simulations.”

Schwartz said that Wu was a positive presence in the group and department, as he often provided advice, support and mentorship to his fellow students and researchers, and frequently volunteered for student activities.

“He was a joy to mentor because he is sincerely eager for feedback and constructive criticism,” Schwartz said. “If I didn’t provide it spontaneously, he actively sought it out. I feel very lucky to have served as his advisor.”

Wu earned his PhD earlier this year and has since joined the Aizenberg Biomineralization and Biomimetics Lab at Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow, where he is working on machine learning-aided materials design and investigating transport phenomena in various materials.

“In the future, I hope to work in academia as I enjoy doing research and teaching, and hope to motivate future generations to tackle difficult but important research problems as my advisor Dan taught me,” Wu said.

As a researcher, he is particularly interested in membrane fouling, as that is one of the primary barriers to maintain high performance in separation processes.

“I am interested in understanding the fundamental fouling mechanisms, developing anti-fouling membrane materials and optimizing the separation processes,” Wu said. “Eventually, I hope to combine these three perspectives to develop next generation, high performance and energy efficient separation processes."

Wu credited several people with helping him achieve this recognition during his time at CU Boulder.

“Firstly, I want to thank my advisor, Dan Schwartz,” Wu said. “He is always extremely supportive, and his unwavering and inspirational guidance will have a long-lasting impact on me. Secondly, I want to thank my friends who accompanied me through my graduate studies, which made my time in Boulder enjoyable and memorable. Lastly, I want to thank my parents for their tremendous encouragement and support throughout my life. Their role in making this happen cannot be emphasized enough.”

Wu will be honored at the College of Engineering and Applied Science Recognition Ceremony on Thursday, December 16.