An Age of Empowerment: Meet Hang Lu

hang lu

An Age of Empowerment: Meet Hang Lu

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.

hang lu

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.

hang lu in her office

“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.”

chips

These custom chips are used for sorting nematodes in Lu's studies.

hang lu

Lu in her lab in the Krone Engineered Biosystems Building.

‘Watch Biology Happen’

Lu’s research work uses nematodes — tiny wormlike microorganisms that have been studied for decades — as a model for studying human neurogenetics.

“The beauty of the nematode is we know so much about it, and it’s see-through — we can label everything in there and watch biology happen,” she said.

The engineering tools they build can help biologists do the science better and more efficiently. In turn, the science they learn from the nematodes may one day help develop therapeutics for human diseases.

“We’re able to develop powerful techniques to see more, see better, and better understand phenomena in order to do better experiments.”

Right now, her team is studying synapses — the connections between neurons and the brain. They can label everything with green fluorescent protein, put it under a microscope, and watch neurons make connections.

Though trained as a chemical engineer, Lu often taps into her scientist side — a more curiosity-driven approach — for her work. She loves watching biology happen in the nematodes.

“They’re really a beauty to look at under these high-powered microscopes.”

nematode

A stuffed nematode hangs in Lu's office.

hang lu

Hang Lu

Love Family Professor, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

December 2018


What does being a woman at Georgia Tech mean to you?

 

“Our school has been pioneering. I was one of only two or three women when I came here, but in a short period I’ve seen more women hired — at all career stages — and they are thriving. But, we still have a long way to go.

Our school is a supportive community. I find my male colleagues understand family issues well, and I see many of them being very involved dads. There is a culture in the school that we cover for each other when things come up. It’s nice to know that we are all in it together to make Georgia Tech a better place.”

 

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