MU Connect issue 5 (page 14 to 15)

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Chair Professor of Intelligent Systems leads
interdisciplinary research for immediate social impact

Research at HKMU is marked by a strong application orientation with a clear goal: to make an impact on society. While it taps into the wealth of the existing faculty, the University is also trying to bring in fresh energy and ideas by recruiting eminent researchers. Among these new recruits is Prof. Roy Vellaisamy who joined the School of Science and Technology (S&T) as Chair Professor of Intelligent Systems in February. A holder of 21 granted patents and more pending applications, he embodies the value of impactful applied research.

Latest case in point: Enhanced thermoelectric generators

With a background in chemical physics and materials engineering, Prof. Vellaisamy is the brain behind numerous practical inventions that find applications in multiple areas. One of his latest projects, for example, contributes to the recovery of industrial waste heat by enhancing the performance of thermoelectric generators (TEGs) — devices that make use of solid-state semi-conducting materials to convert heat directly into electricity. Existing TEGs have two limitations: the constituent materials are brittle by nature, and their power conversion efficiency leaves much to be desired. 'Therefore, we developed a 3D microlattice structure with partially carbonised material for greater mechanical strength and enhanced heat-to-electricity conversion efficiency,' explains Prof. Vellaisamy. The research paper concerned is published in the journal Nature Communications.

A new chapter in interdisciplinary teamwork

Materials engineering is about studying the properties of existing materials with the aim of improving their stability and reliability. It is therefore relevant to all kinds of practical devices. Prof. Vellaisamy's broad interests in intelligent systems include AI-based point-of-care diagnostics, an increasingly valued component in modern healthcare. In S&T, he is working with the machine learning team on data analytics. 'System development is multi-disciplinary and involves various parties,' he elaborates. 'At the molecular level, we engineer sensors, which produce a lot of data. Colleagues with a machine learning background help analyse the data. The results are then fed back to our systems to make them intelligent.'

The materials engineer is no stranger to interdisciplinary research. While his lab facilities have yet to be set up at HKMU, he has already embarked on his first mission to leverage the synergies of multiple Schools to bring direct benefits to society. One of his first projects concerns a diagnostic device for early detection of prostate cancer. Prof. Vellaisamy is involving two Schools in the implementation of the new device. 'To make an immediate impact, I can't work alone,' he expresses. 'I'm working with the School of Nursing and Health Studies to recruit participants to try out the device and collect data, and with colleagues from the Social Sciences Department of the School of Arts and Social Sciences to design a questionnaire to find out what needs to be fine-tuned from the end-user perspective.'

Nurturing the next generation of engineers

As the leader of the molecular electronics group in S&T, Prof. Vellaisamy is also looking to expand the University's research portfolio and diversify the research student body. 'I'm looking forward to supervising projects on high frequency terahertz materials, and I'm hoping to bring in students from Europe who have a strong foundation in engineering,' says Prof. Vellaisamy, who has spent most of his academic life in Hong Kong and just returned from a three-year teaching stint in Glasgow. He is of the view that cross-cultural academic exchanges will benefit HKMU students and is exploring the possibility of establishing joint postgraduate programmes with overseas universities.

Prof. Vellaisamy is an ethnic Tamil. His hometown and its vicinity are the cradle of many influential engineers, including Google CEO Sundar Pichai. The professor attributes this phenomenon to a strong tradition in learning mathematics. 'Many people try to avoid it, but mathematics is very important,' he says. In his opinion, what Hong Kong needs is not more academic drilling, but an educational approach that boosts students' confidence and soft skills in general. 'While teaching in the UK, I found that students from Hong Kong generally performed very well in the first two years, but they suddenly felt lost in the third year, when more soft skills were called for,' Prof. Vellaisamy recalls based on his observation. Next, he will work with the School's STEM team on strategies conducive to training the next generation of engineers.