Dr. Yu-I Hsu, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Engineering
"Plastics made perfect: Developing bioplastics to help solve a major pollution problem"
A Taiwan native, Dr. Yu-I Hsu traveled to Japan several times to visit her aunt during summer holidays when she was a child. She started thinking seriously about continuing her studies in chemistry in Japan when she visited Tokyo in 2008 to learn Japanese for a year after graduating from Tatung University. Dr. Hsu then went on to enroll in a regular graduate course at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and obtain her master's degree and PhD in that field. After she finished her graduate study in 2015, she joined the National Cerebral and Cardiovascular Research Center (Suita, Osaka) where she worked as a postdoctoral fellow for three years and as a project researcher for one year. In 2019, she joined the Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University, as an assistant professor at Prof. Hiroshi Uyama’s laboratory.
Dr. Hsu has been involved in biopolymer research since graduate school. Her studies and postdoctoral research focused on developing polylactic acid (PLA) for use as injectable hydrogels for biomedical purposes, one of which is to act as a scaffold inside an organ where tissues can regenerate. However, at times, she felt that developing bioplastics as biomedical materials was very time-consuming due to the numerous tests and trials that must be cleared before the public can use them. One of the reasons she joined Professor Uyama's lab was that Professor Uyama and his team also have experience in developing bioplastics for consumer products. In the lab, her primary research is on the chemical synthesis of PLA derivatives, together with their chemical and physical characterization and exploration for use as bioplastics and biomedical materials. She is also researching the development of amino acid-based bioplastics, such as polyglutamic acid (PGA) and its derivatives, to produce injectable hydrogels.
Besides conducting research and supervising students, Dr. Hsu also participates in a startup company that develops marine-biodegradable polymers, which have been attracting much attention lately due to the increasing awareness of marine plastic pollution. She mentioned that a leading company in Japan had developed a type of marine-biodegradable plastic by bacterial fermentation. However, the production capacity is relatively low while the price is high. This led Professor Uyama and colleagues to start a company to develop biopolymers based on water-resistant natural products (such as the mixture of modified starch and cellulose) to complement or substitute oil-based polymers. The biopolymers they are currently developing are thermoplastic, have excellent water-resistant properties, and can be partially degraded in seawater after 30 days or more. The company is focused on improving the properties of the biopolymers and exploring ways to use them as single components or mixtures in consumer and biomedical products.
Dr. Hsu feels that working at a large university like Osaka University has allowed her to meet many people with different research interests and specializations. Although she has many responsibilities, such as supervising and mentoring students, she is happy and stimulated in learning new things daily. She enjoys the openness and academic freedom in her lab, department, and faculty, as well as the collaborative spirit shared by faculty members. She also feels lucky to be in a lab with many international students and collaborators. Dr. Hsu is fluent in Japanese, and she feels life in Japan is very comfortable and safe. She likes to travel to historical sites and watch volleyball games in her free time.