Jun Chen Boelter Newsletter

Q&A with Professor Jun Chen

Jun Chen is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. His research focuses on nanotechnology and bioelectronics for energy, sensing and therapeutic applications in the form of smart textiles, wearables and body area networks. He has published two books and 260 journal articles. His works were selected as research highlights seven times by either Nature or Science and covered by global media more than 1,200 times, including NPR, ABC, NBC, Reuters, CNN, The Wall Street Journal‎ and Scientific American. He also filed 14 U.S. patents, including one licensed. With a current h-index of 98 and more than 50 Essential Science Indicators’ Highly Cited Papers, Chen is known as one of the world’s most influential researchers in the field of materials science by Clarivate’s Web of Science. Beyond research, he is an associate editor of Biosensors and Bioelectronics, Med-X, VIEW Medicine, and Textiles. He also serves as an Advisory/ Editorial Board Member of Matter, Cell Reports Physical Science, Biomedical Technology, The Innovation, Nano-Micro Letters, Materials Today Energy, and Nano Trends.

Among his many accolades are the V. M. Watanabe Excellence in Research Award, UCLA Society of Hellman Fellows Award, BBRF Young Investigator Award, ACS PMSE Young Investigator Award, Okawa Foundation Research Award, Advanced Materials Rising Star, Materials Today Rising Star Award and ACS Nano Rising Stars Lectureship Award, Chemical Society Reviews Emerging Investigator Award, Nano Research Young Innovator Award, and Microsystems & Nanoengineering Young Scientist Award.

The following questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

“I welcome, encourage, and treat all students with respect, regardless of their background, and I try to show that UCLA is a place where anyone can be themselves and excel. To date, more than 30 undergraduate students with different backgrounds in science and engineering have conducted research in my lab.”

Q: What are some of the main research projects that you are focusing on in 2023?
One main area of research that I am focused on is studying the magnetoelastic effect, also named the Villari effect. Discovered in 1865 by Italian experimental physicist Emilio Villari, it is the variation of the magnetic field of a material under mechanical stress. This effect is usually observed in rigid metal and metal alloys with an externally applied magnetic field and under mechanical pressure up to tens of megapascal, and has been overlooked in the field of soft bioelectronics for the following three reasons: the magnetization variation in the biomechanical stress range is limited; the requirement of the external magnetic field induces structural complexity and a bulky structure; and there exists a gigantic mismatch of mechanical modulus up to six orders-of-magnitude difference between the rigid magnetoelastic materials and the soft human tissues. In 2021, my research group at UCLA discovered the giant magnetoelastic effect in a soft solid polymer system, which paves a fundamentally new way to build up intrinsically waterproof and biocompatible soft bioelectronics for diagnostics, therapeutics and energy applications. Our research group at UCLA is currently pioneering such research efforts.

Q: How do you work with undergraduate and graduate students on these research projects?
I support both my undergraduate and graduate students by meeting with them weekly to discuss the progress of their research projects. Our laboratory always actively hosts undergraduate students for research, especially underrepresented minority (URM) students. I welcome, encourage and treat all students with respect, regardless of their background, and I try to show that UCLA is a place where anyone can be themselves and excel. To date, more than 30 undergraduate students with different backgrounds in science and engineering have conducted research in my lab. Many of them received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellowship and the UCLA Undergraduate Research Scholarship, and went on to pursue their doctorates at other top-ranked engineering schools. The training experiences in my lab really helped them prepare for their next career move. At the end of each quarter, the undergraduate researchers are also invited to attend our group symposium to give a presentation describing their research accomplishments and their plans for the next quarter.  

Q: How will your research be translated into new technologies?
We recently discovered the giant magnetoelastic effect in soft matter systems and unveiled a new class of human body-powered soft bioelectronics. Technically, we coupled the discovered giant magnetoelastic effect in a soft system with magnetic induction to invent a novel magnetoelastic generator (MEG), which paves a new way for biomechanical-to-electrical energy conversion with unprecedentedly high short-circuit current density and ultralow internal impedance. Our finding opens up a new avenue for practical energy, sensing and therapeutic technologies that are intrinsically waterproof, biocompatible, human-body-centric and can be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT).

What makes this technology unique is that it allows people to stretch and move with comfort when the device is pressed against human skin and, because it relies on magnetism rather than electricity, humidity and our own sweat do not compromise its effectiveness. I am devoted to using my technology to change the world, or at least improve our way of living. For example, we recently developed a wearable glove that can translate American Sign Language into speech. This technology allows sign language users to communicate directly with non-signers without needing a translator to promote the communications between signers and non-signers. This work was highlighted by UCLA Chancellor Gene Block in his report entitled “Breakthroughs and Discoveries.”

Q: How could private funding through donor gifts enable you to further your research at UCLA?
As an early-stage researcher, I am in need of private support for my research and have been actively seeking funding. I welcome private funding to promote our magnetoelastic bioelectronics research. We already have both the science breakthrough and the translational technologies, and with private funding, we can pioneer life-changing work in the field of magnetoelastic bioelectronics research together.

Q: What do you think is the next evolution in the collaboration between health and wearable bioelectronics?
Conventional health care systems have been exposed to many obstacles over the past decades when coping with widespread health problems, such as an aging population and global pandemics. As the IoT and 5G wireless become ubiquitous, soft bioelectronics with widespread connectivity could continuously monitor, track and record an individual’s vital signs and treatment processes. Such advances are critical for development of a personalized health care system with a focus on disease prevention and health promotion.

The practice of human health care may be on the cusp of a revolution, driven by an unprecedented level of personalization that is enabled by advances in wearable technologies, which can continuously and regularly provide qualitative physiological information and produce clinical-grade data for physicians.