Taher A Saif goes small to win big

February 14, 2024

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The newly elected fellow of The National Academy of Engineering in the US is currently involved in creating ‘biological machines’. These machines, essentially made from living cells, may open up a whole world of possibilities in medicine and technology.

While Professor Taher A Saif was enjoying a week-long vacation in Dhaka during the last week of December 2023, reconnecting with old colleagues and friends at BUET and sipping tea at the campus canteen, little did he know that his name was being considered for an elite list of engineers.

Returning to Champaign, USA on 1 January, where he resides with his wife, son, and daughter, Dr. Saif resumed his routine. A month later, he received the news that he had been elected as a fellow member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the highest professional honour in engineering.

The National Academy of Engineering is an American nonprofit and non-governmental organisation. It is a part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the National Research Council. “I was teaching an undergraduate class of about 65 students. The Dean of Engineering called my cell phone,” he recalled. After several rings, he felt it might be important and picked up the phone to receive the news from Dean Rashid Bashir.

“The Dean then shared the news with the students on the speaker.” And then the professor continued to teach the class and completed it. (Remember the unfazed Anne L’huillier after winning nobel? Yes! exactly that)

Sketch, Infograph: TBS

Dr. Saif was recognised for his work in characterising mechanical properties of materials at small scales, with applications spanning materials science and biology.

Let me make it easier for you.

Imagine a magnifying glass that lets you see the tiny details of things, like looking closely at the texture of a leaf or the pattern on a butterfly’s wing. Now, think about someone developing a super-powered magnifying glass that can see even the tinier details of materials.

This is exactly what Professor Saif has done. But instead of looking at leaves or butterfly wings, he has been looking at materials like metals, plastics, and even biological tissues like cells.

You know how sometimes things seem strong on the outside but can be weak or fragile inside? Well, Taher has figured out ways to understand the strength and behaviour of materials at a very small scale, much smaller than what we can normally see.

This helps scientists and engineers design better materials for all sorts of things, from making stronger aeroplanes and cars to understanding how our bodies work at a cellular level. For his works on the mechanics of materials and living organisms at the nanoscale (1000000000 times smaller than a metre) he is getting honoured by the NAE.

Professor Saif has been carrying out engineering research for more than four decades. Nevertheless, his career has been versatile. He started with Civil Engineering, then shifted to Mechanical and then to Electrical.

This professor has been researching biohybrid robots for about 15 years at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and currently holds the position of Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor at the university.

Dr. Saif, in his 60s, after receiving the membership, shared the credits with his “students and postdocs who have done the hard work over the last 25 years.” He also thanked his mentors and friends who supported him.

A steller academic career

Professor Saif’s father was a government official, and had been posted in different parts of Bangladesh. Therefore, much like the “Dipu number two”, he spent early years in different districts. He then settled in Dhaka and completed HSC from Dhaka College – with fourth position in Dhaka Board in 1979.

But Engineering was not the motivating sticker he put up on his study table. He rather wanted to wear a white apron with a stethoscope around his neck and be called a doctor. He eventually became a doctor but of a different kind when he received a PhD in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in 1993 from Cornell University.

Back in 1980, he took the BUET entrance exam following his friends on a whim. The rest is now history.

After completing undergraduate studies in 1984, securing first position with honours in Civil Engineering, Professor Saif began his career as a lecturer at the same department at BUET before pursuing the Masters at Washington State University in USA. After his PhD, he carried out research in microsystems as a postdoctoral associate at Cornell University until 1997.

Following this, he joined his current institution as an Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering, eventually attaining full professorship in 2006. But one thing remained constant in his life since his BUET days: his dedication to research.

In 2010, he was honoured as the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor at the University of Illinois.

For this mammoth workload, Dr Saif needs to recharge his life every now and then. And for that he resorts to reading, travelling and spending time with his family.

His wife, a school teacher, and children have been supportive throughout the journey. Both of the children graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the son studied economics and mathematics, and the daughter chose biology.

Contributing in any way possible

When asked about his jump from one field of engineering to another, he said these fields of engineering share a few common fundamental laws, physical principles and mathematical approaches.

“So, it is not really switching, but applying the common concepts of these fields.”

During the early days of Covid, his lab investigated the efficacy of cloth masks in preventing Covid transmission, and found that cloth masks were quite effective.

“I was very afraid that many in Bangladesh and other developing countries may die from Covid due to high population density,” he said.

“I and my two PhD students, Onur Aydin and Bashar Emon, often worked 15 hours a day during February and March of 2020 to compile the data and provide them to the government agency.”

Although this was a very applied research and they published the results in a reputed journal, this was probably, he thinks, the most impactful work in his scientific career.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) referred to their work since the early days of Covid. The work was highlighted in every region of the world – Asia, Africa, Europe to North America.

“I will never know whether cloth masks saved lives or not, and if so, how many. But there could be millions around the world who could not get sophisticated masks,” said Professor Saif.

What is he up to now?

To give a general idea of his work, Dr. Saif explains that he has been looking at how cancer cells spread within tumours, essentially figuring out why they become so dangerous. Additionally, he has been studying how the mechanical properties of neurons (the cells in our brains and nerves) can affect their behaviour and development.

One of his most exciting ventures involves creating “biological machines”. These are essentially machines made from living cells that open up a whole world of possibilities in fields like medicine and technology.

Professor Saif believes that understanding how neurons mechanically work could have a huge impact in the long run, possibly revolutionising how we think about brain-related diseases and treatments.

Currently, he is interested in understanding the effect of regular physical exercise on mental health.

Life expectancy is increasing globally. In Bangladesh, it increased from 42 yrs (in 1960) to 74 yrs (in 2020). While longer life is a gift, ageing often results in diminishing mental capacity and neurological diseases, e.g., dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) (50 million patients globally).

Physical exercise, a lifestyle affordable to all, is known to improve cognition, and delay AD and dementia. But “how” they work remains unknown.

He wants to understand the biophysics of exercise-brain relations. “The research will lead to novel exercise-based therapies against neurological diseases, including dementia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease,” he asserted.

He has a few scientific hypotheses in these two areas of research and wants to complete the testing of these hypotheses.

“Irrespective of whether the hypotheses are tested right or wrong, the research will shed new light on many unanswered questions in the fields,” he believes.

Working with tiny but fascinating things

Professor Saif’s research interests include studying really tiny materials, like the ones used in microelectronics – the basis of modern gadgets. He wanted to understand how these materials behave when we test them at such a small scale.

So, his lab created tools to do just that. What they found most exciting was that certain metals made up of really tiny grains can actually fix themselves over time if they get bent or damaged.

Imagine if a paperclip made from this kind of metal could straighten itself on its own after being bent! This discovery changed what we thought we knew about how metals behave when forces are applied upon them. It could lead to making things like car bumpers that can heal themselves after getting dented.

His works already made him a star in his field; the National Academy of Engineering made it more obvious.

Since there is no Nobel Prize specifically designated for Engineering, it holds a prestigious status almost like the Nobel Prize across the globe. Not many engineers get the honour.

Professor Saif is likely the third Bangladeshi to receive such an honour. Preceding him, the revered figure in construction engineering and the visionary behind what was once the tallest building, the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), Dr. Fazlur Rahman Khan, was bestowed with this prestigious award in 1973.

Following his footsteps, 28 years later, another luminary, Dr. Fazle Hussain, a trailblazer in mechanical engineering, was recognised for his pioneering research that contributed to significant breakthroughs at NASA.

And now after another 23 years, Bangladesh got another recipient.

But he is not stopping anytime soon. “I will continue my research on neuroscience and cancer from an engineering point of view,” he concluded.

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