Engineering grad student Ha Nguyen celebrates commencement as Graduate School flag bearer

By Meghan Chua


A person wearing a collared shirt, slacks, and lab gloves sits at a lab bench and poses for a photo.Ha Nguyen came to Madison from Vietnam in 2012. He got a job working in materials science and engineering where he used plasma to make materials. However, he didn’t feel like he understood plasma.

His curiosity drove him to study plasma physics and brought him to UW­–Madison, where he will graduate with a PhD in electrical and computer engineering this month. At the ceremony on December 17, Nguyen also has the honor of being the flag bearer for the Graduate School.

As a PhD student, Nguyen studied plasma and material interactions, specifically for synthesizing and processing semiconductors and biomedical materials.

“We try to understand complex phenomena and advance knowledge of materials, plasmas, and their interactions in order to develop cutting edge technologies to improve healthcare and quality of life,” Nguyen said.

Plasma, the fourth state of matter, is used to manufacture semiconductors, and has potential in many biomedical applications such as cancer treatment and drug discovery. Nguyen initially began a master’s program working with Dr. J. Leon Shohet to study plasma’s use for making microelectronic devices and integrated circuits in computer chips.

Then, Nguyen said, “I wanted to apply some of my applied physics knowledge to healthcare.” He connected with Dr. Hau Le in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, who researches bioengineering models and devices for lung development and diseases, including lung cancer.

Nguyen worked in Dr. Le’s lab for a year. He became fascinated with the biomedical applications of plasma technologies and decided to continue as a PhD student. He wanted to stay at UW–Madison for graduate school because of the high reputation of plasma research here.

As one of his contributions while on campus, Nguyen developed an approach that improves an existing technology called PLIMB, or Plasma Induced Modification of Biomolecules, which was invented by UW–Madison professors and graduate alumni.

PLIMB uses a plasma and liquid solution containing protein to label amino acids of the protein, allowing researchers to better analyze protein’s three-dimensional structure and facilitate the discovery of protein-based drug therapy. Existing protein-based drug therapies treat COVID-19, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast cancer, to name a few.

However, one challenge of the PLIMB technology, and the field of the plasma-liquid interactions, is that the labeling chemicals generated in plasma tend to stay at the top of the liquid solution rather than evenly distributing throughout it, leading to reduced quality of protein samples.

Nguyen’s research addressed this challenge, leading to an effective way to improve PLIMB and other related technologies based on complex plasma-liquid interactions. He proposed a novel method of introducing very tiny bubbles to the solution that prompt the protein molecules in liquid and the chemicals in the plasma to mix more evenly, therefore making the overall solution more uniform and substantially improving the quality of protein samples.

The bubbles also had to be controlled precisely and automatically so that it wouldn’t make the solution shaky and unpredictable, which could have a negative effect on the plasma processing of the protein solution. Nguyen built and tested prototypes for a device that can create controllable bubbles as small as one micrometer in size, or one millionth of a meter.

“By use of very controllable hydrodynamics of microbubbles rising in liquid, we can generate very novel liquid mixing, especially in very small volumes like microliter samples,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen’s work will enable even more discoveries in protein-based drug therapeutics. The device has a pending patent and will be impactful across the protein therapeutics industry. One example is Immuto Scientific, a Madison-based startup founded by PhD alumni Faraz Choudhury and Dan Benjamin along with professor Mike Sussman, which is commercializing PLIMB technology.

After graduation, Nguyen hopes to work as a professor in applied materials and plasma physics and has an eye on starting a company that would put into practice the technologies he’s learned and developed as a graduate student.

Nguyen’s work is a result of many interdisciplinary collaborations. At first, when he began working with colleagues in the medical school, Nguyen said he was a bit intimidated and had to learn a lot of new things. But, he said, collaborating with others who are experts in different areas helped him feel confident, along with “the encouragement that what we are doing here is very impactful.”

In addition to his research, Nguyen works at the campus Math Learning Center to teach calculus for students. He’s also contributed to other research projects, including a second one with a pending patent related to cancer treatment for brain tumors. After being in Madison for 10 years, Nguyen says he has a love for this campus.

“I like how the faculty work together,” Nguyen said. “They will try to maximize the capacity of the research in UW. That gives students a great opportunity to explore.”