Finding passion in research that makes an impact

PhD grad Adam Gushgari didn't set out to work in research but became inspired to find solutions for the drug crisis

April 30, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

The opioid epidemic is affecting millions across the country. But for Adam Gushgari, who is graduating with his PhD in civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, that impact hit closer to home. After two close friends died from overdoses, Gushgari was inspired to pursue a course of study that would help stem such tragedies and have a positive impact on the world. Adam Gushgari PhD graduate Adam Gushgari plans to pursue a STEM-field startup company on environmental monitoring after finding his passion working on wastewater research at the Biodesign Institute. Photo by Jean Clare Sarmiento/ASU Download Full Image

Today, he is testing wastewater in an effort to understand the level and types of drug use among specific populations. The information they collect can help public health officials identify areas of concern and implement and test strategies that address threats to the population.

“Before we can make a marked change, we need to understand the scope of the situation,” Gushgari said.

A native Arizonan from Scottsdale, Gushgari didn’t initially set out to work in scientific research. His background was civil engineering, which he did for five years after undergrad. Although the money was good, he found the work a bit tedious. He returned to academia looking for a way to feed his intellect and passions.

“I got into research by chance,” Gushgari said, after meeting Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Biodesign Institute. One of Halden’s major projects is analyzing wastewater to learn more about public health.

Currently, Halden’s team of about eight scientists have collected samples from more than 200 wastewater-treatment plants around the world as part of his Human Health Observatory. Gushgari found it refreshing that Halden’s research could be used in a real-world application.

Gushgari’s passion for finding solutions for the drug crisis has fueled his long-term plans. After graduation, he plans to pursue his dream of a STEM-field startup company on environmental monitoring. He credits Halden with helping him lay the groundwork for that startup and for being “an adviser who actually cares passionately about his students and their work.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I didn't have an "aha" moment until after I started my PhD at ASU. My career choices prior to pursing my PhD were made entirely just for monetary gain when I was working as a civil engineer. It wasn't until I began my PhD work that I realized my passion for wastewater-epidemiological monitoring — and since this, I have entirely changed my career trajectory.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: So much — too much to list actually. I think the most pertinent thing that I learned was my mass-spec and wastewater-based epidemiology training, as I will be taking these skills to private industry for a startup company.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I'm a born-and-raised Arizonan; you couldn't pay me to live anywhere else. I went to ASU for my undergraduate degree where I first met Dr. Rolf Halden, and his lab seemed like a good fit for me.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Don't make career decisions based entirely on money; find something you're passionate about and follow that.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: ISTB4 — Room 240: This is where I successfully defended my PhD thesis! Honestly though, I rarely venture outside of the office/laboratory. Grad student life is certainly much different than undergrad.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Pursuing my dream of a STEM-field startup company.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Addressing the opioid epidemic and continuing the project that I pursued during my PhD. This is actually what I plan on doing, but having $40 million in seed money would certainly take some of the personal risk out of the situation for me.

Jean Clare Sarmiento

Communications Specialist , Biodesign Institute


ASU Bisgrove Scholar illuminates the future of LED lighting

April 30, 2018

We encounter light-emitting diodes on a daily basis — the indicator lights on our smartphones, on the screens of our flat-panel TVs and in the latest energy-efficient light bulbs. Yuji Zhao thought he could make them work better and do more than simply shine a light.

The electrical engineering professor at Arizona State University proposed that by developing “smart” LEDs, the devices could heal wounds and even replace existing Wi-Fi technology with light-based “Li-Fi” wireless communication capable of 10,000 times higher capacity bandwidth. Yuji Zhao (left), an electrical engineering professor in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and Houqiang Fu (right), a doctoral student in Zhao’s research group, hold an LED light bulb. Yuji Zhao (left) an electrical engineering professor in Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and Houqiang Fu, a doctoral student in Zhao’s research group, hold an LED light bulb. Zhao and Fu are authors on a paper recently published in a leading photonics journal highlighting the theoretical limits and future directions for light-emitting diode technology. Photo courtesy of Yuji Zhao Download Full Image

In 2015, this was a risky proposal involving a new and relatively untested area of research in photonics and LEDs. Luckily for Zhao, his first proposal as an ASU faculty member was accepted by the Science Foundation Arizona Bisgrove Scholar program, which funded his research.

The Bisgrove Scholar program aims to attract and retain notable, early career faculty members in Arizona who have “the potential to transform ideas into great value for society.”

“This program recognized the high scientific merits and potential impact of our proposal and made this exciting research a reality,” said Zhao, a faculty member in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

In the years since, Zhao has made great strides on the frontier of LEDs in three areas.

First, Zhao and his team investigated the theoretical limits of LED efficiency and device structure bottlenecks in order to create a new and better structure that is less prone to efficiency “droop” and the limitations inherent to green LED light. Zhao says the solution lies in producing high-quality indium gallium nitride, or InGaN, with a low amount of defects and impurities. Green LED light is especially problematic because it requires InGaN with more indium, which is difficult to synthesize and is typically low quality with many defects. 

Next, they looked into using light rather than wireless radio frequency to send signals — Li-Fi versus Wi-Fi.

“What we propose is using LED light to transmit a signal by modulating a LED light at a very high speed to send binary signals,” Zhao explained.

Finally, they started to develop a LED or photonic structure in the ultraviolet light range that would be useful for a number of medical applications. Zhao and his research team are looking into creating integrated chips — devices that include circuits beyond just the LEDs — for new biomedical applications.

“The breakthrough we’re achieving now is we’re producing a particular photonic integrated chip that can work at the UV wavelengths, which can be used for a lot of medical applications,” Zhao said, which include biosensing and wound treatment.

The results of Zhao’s Bisgrove Scholar project have yielded 20 papers published in leading research journals and in the publications of international conferences.

Zhao’s overarching summary paper of smart LED research and related work also led to “one of the first comprehensive papers on the new frontier of smart LEDs, and it provides important information and valuable insights into the future of LED research,” the researcher said.

The summary paper, “Toward ultimate efficiency: progress and prospects on planar and 3D nanostructured nonpolar and semipolar InGaN light-emitting diodes,” was published in the journal Advances in Optics and Photonics, which is ranked second out of 92 journals for impact in optics and photonics research.

The paper will likely serve as a source of seminal LED research and be referenced for years to come because it highlights the fundamental efficiency limits and possible future directions for LED technology.

The smart LED research builds on Zhao’s work in gallium nitride, or GaN, wide-bandgap semiconductors, and also expands his work on GaN to new projects supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and NASA.

“The success of our Bisgrove Scholar program LED research enabled us to leverage our results on LEDs and expand the research of GaN to other important fields such as power electronics and space technologies,” Zhao said.

This compelling research was also made possible by Zhao’s mentors — David J. Smith, an ASU Regents’ Professor of physics, electrical engineering Professor Yong-Hang Zhang and Professor and Director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering Stephen Phillips, who provided advice, leadership, ideas, resources, teaching and laboratories including the ASU NanoFab facility directed by Zhang.

Nine ASU faculty members and postdoctoral scholars have been named Bisgrove Scholars by Science Foundation Arizona since 2011.

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering