Man on a Mission Physicist-Astronaut Taylor Wang ’67, M.S. ’68, Ph.D. ’71 By Margaret MacDonald
Taylor Wang took his three UCLA physics degrees into space when he made history as the first Chinese-American astronaut. In May 1985, he was the payload specialist on the space shuttle STS-51B Challenger. In a few years, he hopes to make history again, this time for developing a functional cure for Type 1 diabetes. Wang was in charge of all Spacelab 3 science experiments on the shuttle, logging more than 2.9 million miles in 110 Earth orbits and more than 168 hours in space. His own research involved compound droplet experiments, and was the first time one of Sir Isaac Newton’s original theories had ever been tested in zero gravity. Observations from these experiments are still contributing to his biomedical research 29 years later. He developed a revolutionary system that protects cellular transplants without the need for harsh transplant rejection drugs. This year, Wang was granted the world’s first patent for a living-cell, bio-artificial organ (for pancreatic and other disorders), which is the most promising technology yet for biologically reversing diabetes. Wang is Centennial Professor Emeritus of Applied Physics, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Vanderbilt University and founder, chairman and chief technical officer of Encapsulife, a biomedical technology company. He is the author of 200 articles and holds 30 U.S. patents.
Taylor Wang inside the Challenger spacecraft. Photo: NASA
22 UCLA COLLEGE REPORT
From China to UCLA to outer space Wang was born on mainland China amid the turbulence of World War II. His family moved often, fleeing first the Japanese invasions and then the repressive regime of Communist China, eventually settling in Taiwan. After high school, Wang’s father insisted that he spend a year as a merchant marine for the family’s shipping company. After 12 months traveling the world, Wang had been expected to join the company permanently, but told his father he planned to study physics at UCLA. He enrolled in 1963, graduated in three years and one quarter, then went on to earn his master’s degree and doctorate in physics in 1968 and 1971, respectively. “I am a person of average intelligence and skill, but I am very stubborn,” Wang said. “I’ve never accepted failure as a conclusion.” Transformative mentoring Wang was greatly influenced by Isadore Rudnick, a professor of physics he met during his freshman year and in whose lab he worked for most of his eight years at UCLA. “Professor Rudnick changed his research interests every 10 years, so as his student I had to learn three distinct subjects: acoustics, solid state and low temperature fluid physics,” Wang said. “It was tough, but it made me a more flexible thinker.” Rudnick also advised Wang not to specialize too soon, telling him to “let your interests guide you.” After leaving UCLA, he continued to visit Rudnick monthly for what they called “blue sky sessions,” long conversations on wide-ranging, random subjects. Wang joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1972 and became a U.S. citizen in 1975. A year later, he published a research paper that caught the attention of NASA, and in 1983 he was selected for the shuttle mission. Astronaut training was a challenge, both physically and intellectually. “We had to learn how to deal with motion sickness to function in space,” Wang said. “We sat in a swivel chair inside an elevator and as it went up and down, we had to sway our heads from side to side — guaranteed to make you sick.” Prior to the flight, he crammed the diverse scientific knowledge required to conduct all six experiments. “I became intimately familiar with subjects I didn’t know anything about,” he said. Although Wang claims not to have been “that excited” about being an astronaut, he is gratified that his history-making space flight made his mother and father proud. “My parents gave me the gift of education, the privilege of attending UCLA,” Wang said. “And I feel I’ve been a good son.”