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Professor Rao named Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professor

June 12, 2017

Chair Radha Poovendran, Elizabeth Hwang, C.J. Hwang, Professor Raj Rao and Dean Michael Bragg.

In the months after their daughter Karen’s car accident and spinal cord injury, Cherng Jia “C.J.” Hwang (Ph.D. ’66) and Elizabeth Yun Hwang (MLIS ’65) sought care that would improve their daughter’s overall quality of life. While doctors encouraged adjustment to the new paralytic condition, the Hwangs believed their daughter Karen’s care should not focus solely on simple, day-to-day functioning.

With no prior knowledge on caring for those with quadriplegia, they searched for answers, for current treatments and for groundbreaking solutions. In this search, they learned of promises of nerve regeneration and damaged nerve bypass – grand treatments that could someday transform paralysis diagnoses. However, there were no solutions that offered immediate impact for those already suffering from spinal cord injury.

The Hwangs wanted to do more. With a passion for innovation and a commitment to those suffering from spinal cord injury, they launched their own research initiative – The Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professorship – that is housed in the University of Washington Department of Electrical Engineering (UW EE).

This professorship is built on the Hwangs’ shared vision of making life better for those with paralysis. It supports the critical advancement of rehabilitation technologies for spinal cord injury and stroke. The nature of this research requires a multi-disciplinary approach. UW EE is uniquely positioned to achieve this. The department’s depth of collaboration spans multiple departments and disciplines with ten faculty in joint appointments and over a dozen adjunct faculty appointments.

Because of this dedication to collaboration, the department has established valuable partnerships with the UW Medical School and Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), offering expertise in all areas of device rehabilitation design.

For the Hwangs, the UW EE department is the ideal places to fulfill their vision, and they look forward to the growth of the endowment in the future.

“I hope that device-based rehabilitation and accessibility technology for improving the quality of life of the spinal cord and brain injured persons, initiated and funded by the Hwang endowment, will grow into sustainable research activities at the University of Washington,” Mr. Hwang said. “The ultimate goal would be for it to grow into the nation’s number one for such activities, based on the unique integration of the available resources at the university.”

Selecting the best champion for the endowed professorship was a critical decision. From his groundbreaking work on brain-computer interfaces, Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering Professor and Director of CSNE Raj Rao leads device-driven rehabilitation technologies. Rao’s lab focuses on computational neuroscience and brain-computer interfacing (BCI), building computer models to understand how neural circuits work in the brain. This knowledge helps Rao’s lab develop BCIs that can be used to enable communication, control prosthetic devices and facilitate rehabilitation in paralyzed individuals.

“The selection of Professor Rao is ideal,” Mr. Hwang said. “His work lays the groundwork for research on developing a device-based rehabilitation technology to improve the quality of life of people with spinal cord injury and brain damage. He is well qualified for the Hwang Professorship. Chair Poovendran certainly made a brilliant choice. We are very pleased to have him installed as the first endowed professor.”

The Hwang’s gift supports research at a top university with significant expertise in device-driven rehabilitation technologies. However, as UW alums, Mr. and Mrs. Hwang are giving to a place of significant, personal meaning.

While a Ph.D. student in UW EE, Mr. Hwang received an education that prepared him for a lasting career at Bell Telephone Labs, something he attributes to the great mentorship by his adviser Professor Lynn Watt.

“The EE department of the UW gave me all the education I needed to enter the job market, and it was Professor Lynn Watt who had the greatest influence on my career path,” Mr. Hwang said. “He guided me into the field of semiconductor by offering me a research assistantship. He also recommended me to the recruiter from Bell Telephone Labs, which gave me the opportunity to work in their laser group. This is the place where I was engaged in the development of semiconductor lasers and later used the technology to start the first company.”

Mr. Hwang would go on to found two more companies during his career: General Optronics Corp, which was the world’s first semiconductor laser manufacturer; Applied Optronics Corp, the world’s first company producing high power semiconductor lasers and subsystems for medical surgical applications; and Optronics International Corp, the first Taiwanese company developing and commercializing semiconductor lasers and subsystems for high-speed fiber optic communications.

Within each decade, Mr. Hwang remained at the frontier of laser research, taking his prior discovery and implementing it at an advanced level of operation. His discoveries have had a substantive, profound impact on the development of opto-electronics and communication in the United States, as well as abroad. However, for Mr. Hwang, his lasting legacy is the The Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professorship.

“C.J.’s vision for this professorship comes from years of dedication to innovation and entrepreneurship,” UW EE Professor and Chair Radha Poovendran said. “If C.J. had stopped early on in his career, accepting the standard applications for semiconductor lasers, the ubiquity of lasers may not be what it is today. We are honored to have C.J. and Elizabeth as top collaborators for this important research.”

This sense of collaboration spurs all facets of the The Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Endowed Professorship. For Rao, a dedication to collaboration has built and will continue to grow his lab’s research. He is grateful to the Hwang family, for their generous contributions to critical research that may have large-scale societal impact.

“I am truly honored to be named the inaugural CJ and Elizabeth Hwang Professor of CSE and EE,” Rao said. “I regard the Professorship as a recognition of the great collaborative effort of the students, faculty and staff at our center [CSNE] over the past 6 years that has made UW a premier destination for neural engineering in the world. We are extremely grateful to the Hwang family for their generosity in accelerating the center’s efforts to build devices that will improve the quality of life of people with spinal cord injury and other neurological conditions.”


This remarkable gift comes in the midst of the University’s most ambitious philanthropic campaign in its history, “Be Boundless — For Washington, For the World.” The campaign seeks to raise $5 billion by 2020.