Tian Tang named Tier 1 Canada Research Chair

Multi-scale modelling research shows promise in real world applications, including biomedicine and the petroleum industry

Donna McKinnon - 02 June 2022

Tian Tang always loved math. As a PhD student, her analytical mind found a natural home in theoretical and applied mechanics where she focused on carbon nanotube, a nanomaterial with remarkable mechanical and electrical properties, and its applications in nanotechnology. 

When Tang came to the University of Alberta 15 years ago as a researcher in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, her attention turned toward organic and inorganic material interactions, using computer simulations and multi-scale modelling to study and predict material behaviour.

It’s an emerging area of scientific inquiry that has potential applications in everything from biomedicine to oil production. 

Tang’s cutting edge research has received national attention, including today’s announcement of a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Multi-scale Modelling of Soft Materials and Interfaces. Tier 1 appointments such as Tang’s recognize outstanding researchers acknowledged by their peers as global leaders in their fields. She joins 15 other CRCs in the Faculty of Engineering and was a previous recipient of the Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in 2007 and 2013.

“It’s an honour,” says Tang, adding that the CRC will enable her to expand her collaborative network and attract more students to her research program. 

Tang uses multi-scale modelling, which is different from traditional modelling that focuses on a single scale, to look at the behaviour of soft materials such as human tissues, cells, DNA, and various polymers. These materials are strongly influenced by interactions with other entities, generating different structures and functionalities. This approach, Tang explains, is a way of imagining or shrinking yourself to the vantage point or level of a molecule in order to see, build, capture and test molecular assemblies and interactions at different scales to address problems associated with complex systems, achieving different outcomes. 

“It’s about understanding what is going on behind the scenes,” says Tang. “Using models and simulations, we can actually test and predict the material behaviours in a neat and fast way — and if we can understand the mechanisms driving the behaviour, we can honestly answer the question why — and then be able to predict what if?”

Tang’s research draws from experimental expertise across several disciplines, including biomedical engineering and nanotechnology. Among several ongoing projects, she has been working with chemical engineer Hasan Uludag for the past decade on the development of a gene delivery system that targets cancer cells. 

“Cancer cells are usually associated with the overexpression of certain proteins, and by delivering certain types of DNA or RNA into the cells, you stop the overexpression,'' explains Tang. “Molecular models are developed and simulated on different scales to test the performance of different delivery carriers.” 

Multi-scale modelling also has applications in the energy industry where Tang and her collaborator Hongbo Zeng are researching how to modulate oil and water interface in petroleum production, leading to quality improvements and better recycling processes. 

Tang, who also serves as Academic Co-Chair for Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST), is working with her students on the development of open source methods and tools to be used by others who may be unfamiliar with multi-scale modelling, broadening its potential applications.  

“I enjoy working with equations and simulations,” she says. “I am fortunate to have found opportunities to study smart materials and interfaces that are relevant to biomedicine and industrial oil production, among other things, and I am very fortunate to collaborate with experimentalists with whom I can validate my model and apply it to real world applications.”