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Chih-Ming Ho, Cell Mimetics Space Exploration

  • By Pamela Corante
  • Published Feb 1, 2003 8:00 AM

Like most young boys growing up in Taiwan about a decade into the space age, Chih-Ming Ho was fascinated with the idea of space travel and flying. He set his sights on becoming a pilot, only to discover that he was too nearsighted.

Undaunted, he channeled his passion for flight into the field of aerodynamics, where he focused on large-scale systems such as aircraft. But he never imagined the twists and turns that would ultimately lead him to UCLA and a role in space exploration. Along the way, Ho's interests would turn from large-scale systems to micro systems and then to progressively smaller micro-fluidic systems. To meet the challenge of miniaturizing technology even more (nano-fluidics), Ho and his team would blaze a new trail, developing the field known as cell mimetics.

But back to 1967, when Ho graduated from the Mechanical Engineering Department of the National Taiwan University. His studies then brought him to the United States where, in 1974, he received his Ph.D. in mechanics and materials science from Johns Hopkins University. In 1991 Ho moved to UCLA, where he established the UCLA MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) program and, with his colleagues, brought it to world prominence. Ho is associate vice chancellor for research and Ben Rich-Lockheed Martin Professor in the School of Engineering. And now Ho has become the first director of the Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration, or CMISE.

The "lab on a chip" concept illustrates the potential power of cell mimetics. By mirroring the way cells communicate with each other to form more complex systems such as tissues and organs, artificial systems would be developed to perform similar sensory and control functions. The integration of multilevel natural and artificial systems would allow for detection of bacteria or harmful agents by a device the size of a small box — a fraction of the size of a full-scale laboratory.

Ho and his CMISE research team blend micro-technology, mechanics and biology in their quest to create micro-scale sensory systems. Such a mechanism could monitor, sense, control and prevent damage to an astronaut's body while on a space exploration mission. This system would be miniscule in size, yet complex enough to carry out the functions of a fully operating laboratory.

With the collaboration of NASA and other leading institutions, Ho and his team of researchers hope to take their findings from the laboratory to the galaxy, making space exploration missions healthier and longer-lasting for astronauts. The technology used to develop long-term space travel is naturally applicable to more earthbound uses and ultimately will have a tremendous impact on the medical, energy and defense fields, among others.

Ho is modest about his accomplishments, but they illustrate his drive and dedication to cell mimetics. He is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering and the Academia Sinica of Taiwan. He has published 190 papers and holds seven patents, and has presented more than 60 keynote talks at international conferences. He was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Ho travels the world extensively (and exhaustively) for meetings and conferences. It is not uncommon for him to travel to Europe for a 22-hour stay, only to fly back, stop at home for an hour, and then drive to his office.

Los Angeles is a long way from the small farming village in Taiwan where, as a young man, Ho dreamed of becoming a pilot. However, he seems to have no regrets about not being able to fly. "I work seven days a week because it's so exciting," he says.

His passion for cell mimetic technology is an indicator that he has found his true calling.