By Devin Steele
Wei Gao, associate professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science (TECS) at NC State University’s Wilson College of Textiles, had a strong interest in fibers and fabrics as a child growing up in Jurong in Southeast China. Coincidentally, she noted, her given name “Wei” corresponds to a Chinese character that can be translated as “weft,” a component of weaving.
Yet, that early interest in the field and an appropriate name for a textile enthusiast did not lead her initially into that realm – a passion for advanced materials research did. After earning higher-education degrees in chemistry and conducting research in materials physics and applications, she landed at the Wilson College of Textiles in 2015 and, since then, has made an indelible mark as a researcher, instructor and mentor.
And Gao’s impact has not gone unnoticed. She was recently named a prestigious University Faculty Scholar in NC State’s 2021 class, joining 20 other early- and mid-career faculty who received this designation. The honor recognizes outstanding academic achievements and contributions to NC State through their teaching, scholarship and service to the university and beyond.
I am grateful for this recognition,” said Gao. “It feels good when you do something you like as a career and get recognized for it. I am highly grateful for NC State and the Wilson College for giving me the opportunities here to pursue my career.”
Gao’s research interests lie at the interface between materials chemistry, textile engineering and renewable energy-related technologies. And her work in a group of materials called “graphene oxides” and their applications in fuel cells, supercapacitors and batteries – which was a major focus of her doctoral thesis – has already made her a leading researcher in this potentially game-changing area. Gao is the first to demonstrate a monolithic supercapacitor system that is based on graphene, which offers comparable performance with existing commercial products. Because she was the first to discover that graphene was ionically conductive, her discovery has propelled her into worldwide recognition, with more than 8,000 citations referencing her pioneering role.
In a letter nominating Gao for the designation, TECS Department Head and Professor Jeff Joines called her a “rising star whose research can transcend how we think about graphene and energy storage, and her work is likely to revolutionize the field.”
Wilson College of Textiles Dean David Hinks called Gao a “treasure,” not only within the Wilson College but at the university as a whole.
“Dr. Gao clearly belongs in the esteemed group of emerging leaders at NC State as a University Faculty Scholar,” Hinks said. “There are many reasons she earned this recognition, and one in particular is that she is already one of the most highly-cited faculty members, even though her faculty career is relatively young. In addition to her peers and colleagues citing her work, it is also clearly impactful, evidenced by the diverse industry and government agencies that are sponsoring her work. I am so very proud of Dr. Gao’s achievements. She truly earned this award.”
As a child, Gao aspired to be a teacher because of her admiration for her primary school teacher, she said. She was raised by parents who always told her that “as a female, I have to be as independent as possible.” In middle school, she read Charlotte Brontë’s novel, “Jane Eyre,” which helped drive home that lesson, she said.
“I remember vividly the character of Jane,” Gao said. “In my mind, her strong individuality is the crown jewelry of her personality, which makes her a role model. I studied hard in school and was a good student. When I look back, it was quite clear that God led me along the way throughout my life.”
Gao’s dedication and commitment to learning led her to one of the top higher ed institutions in China, Nanjing University, where she earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in chemistry and analytical chemistry. From there, she enrolled at Houston-based Rice University, where she earned a doctorate in chemistry in 2012. She then worked as a director’s postdoctoral fellow on fuel cells and batteries in the Los Alamos National Laboratory for two-and-a-half years before discovering NC State.
“When I was searching for faculty jobs, I had a strong thought in my mind that I wanted to work on something that applies to everyday life and makes a real difference to society,” said Gao, who earned her U.S citizenship in 2018. “The textile industry looked quite interesting and intriguing to me.”
Since then, Gao has steadily made a name for herself at the Wilson College, the university, the textile industry and the broader world engaged in her areas of expertise. Early on, she was able to leverage her experience in carbon nanomaterials to approach problems in textiles by shifting her research to textile-based energy storage and conversion systems (e.g., fiber spinning for yarn shaped supercapacitors, etc.), Joines said. Within a few short years, her group of graduate students, visiting scholars and postdocs have made prominent contributions in this field, he added.
“Dr. Gao has an uncanny ability to identify the converging areas of two research fields,” Joines said. “This has allowed her to make significant gains due to her multidisciplinary lens. Undoubtedly, wearable devices, especially for health monitoring and military applications, will exponentially grow over the next decade – and Dr. Gao will lead the charge in creating mechanisms needed to power these types of systems, mainly because of her hard work and multidisciplinary team.”
Gao has obtained more than $1.7 million for her lab funding from sources spanning government agencies, industrial research consortiums and direct companies. Since joining the university, her research has resulted in more than 50 peer-reviewed journal articles in 22 publications. (See a summary here.)
“Research is fun to me,” Gao said. “It satisfies my curiosity. I see textile research as a niche where advanced materials research in the science community can converge with everyday reality. In other words, I want to see how those novel ideas and materials developed in the research community can be really useful in everyday life.”
Gao has more than 20,000 citations to her credit – an exceptional achievement among early-stage researchers in her field. She has also authored “Graphene Oxide: Reduction Recipes, Spectroscopy, and Applications,” which, in digital form, was among the top 25 percent most downloaded eBooks in 2018 in its respective collection, according to Wilson College Associate Dean for Research Xiangwu Zhang, who also wrote a letter supporting Gao’s nomination for the University honor.
Gao has chaired doctoral and graduate students and has mentored or advised several visiting scholars, postdocs and undergraduates in her lab. What also helps set her apart is her work with high school students in the area, several of whom have won awards and are pursuing degrees in science fields, according to Joines.
“She is an excellent teacher and mentor of undergraduate and graduate students,” Hinks said. “She is truly a rare faculty member who excels in all realms of her duties – teaching, research and service. She epitomizes our relatively new Culture Charter and our core values of compassion, equity, collaboration, innovation and sustainability.”
Hinks added that academia and the U.S. textiles Industry need more researchers, teachers and mentors such as Gao. “She is creative, is able to transfer basic research into impactful applied technology, and is able to inspire new students to enter the Wilson College and the textiles industry, who will become the future leaders and entrepreneurs.”