Scott Vu has a passion for learning, innovating and dancing. Starting in eighth grade, Vu took advanced mathematics and computer programming classes part-time. At age 15, he enrolled as a full-time student at NC State with a triple major in computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering.
“From my perspective, I enjoyed it,” Vu said. “I liked learning and trying new things; it was a good opportunity to advance my knowledge. I had a lot of freedom; I didn’t have to worry about bills, cooking or cleaning.”
Vu decided to take a leave of absence to enroll at NC State full time, after earning the highest possible GPA at Broughton High School.
“People prepare for the SAT years in advance; at the time I had one week,” Vu said. “I took all the practice tests that I could. After taking it once, I got accepted to State at the age of 15.”
A rapid learner, Vu became a lab instructor and teaching assistant for a computer programming course during his first semester.
“It was nerve-wracking the first time, but after three semesters it wasn’t bad,” Vu said. “My whole family would come in during the lab time and watch me teach.”
Vu’s mother and aunt also took courses at NC State while he was a student. Coincidentally, Vu and his mother shared courses with Donald Bitzer, a distinguished research professor.
“They had a bit of a contest between the two of them, but it was friendly competition,” Bitzer said. “They weren’t in the same section, so they were always curious how the other was doing.”
Vu didn’t know when he enrolled in the computer programming class that Bitzer would become his mentor and friend.
“Bitzer was an inventor, so I went to his office hours one day and asked, ‘How could we create an invisible cloak?’” Vu said. “At the time, a lot of people thought I was inspired by ‘Harry Potter,’ but I actually hadn’t seen the movie.”
Vu and Bitzer immediately started contemplating the possibilities. After about four hours, they concluded it was too complicated to implement. The easiest trick would be to conceal objects behind mirrors.
“It’s important in some areas, more than just the mystery movies,” Bitzer said. “It’d be good for hiding ships, tanks and airplanes from radars. Even our best airplanes that are pretty stealthy can be detected on a satellite from its shadow. You have to make sure it doesn’t cast a shadow.”
According to Bitzer, an invisible cloak would require metamaterials with a negative refractive index over all optical wavelengths.
“It was an innocent question with a lot of useful applications,” Bitzer said. “I thought to myself, ‘this is a young, interested student; let’s get him started.’”
Consequently, Bitzer invited him to work on a genetics research project. Retrospectively, the research stemmed out to become Vu’s new company, RiboWiz Scientific.
According to Vu, RiboWiz’s mission is to successfully produce difficult-to-make proteins through novel gene manipulation for treatments of cancer, AIDS and various diseases. The science is unprecedented as is the technology, defying the current understanding of protein synthesis.
“I’m taking a science that will have an impact on humanity and make new treatments for diseases,” Vu said. “My goal is to lower the cost of biologic drugs.”
It’s expensive to make many cancer treatments because the yield is so small; specific treatments can cost up to $1 million per year, according to Bitzer.
Bitzer, similar to Vu, has always been ahead of his time in his research. Regarded as the Father of PLATO, Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations, Bitzer co-invented the plasma display panel in 1964.
“I can’t wait to get back to the lab all the time,” Bitzer said. “I’d rather sit down and think over an idea or concept than eat. It all takes time and patience for people to have a need and an industry to be able to cater to that need. Not everyone wants to be a researcher, but after you get it done, it’s all worth it.”
Bitzer has been teaching for more than 60 years. He first taught as a lab instructor in theoretical and applied mechanics when he was a sophomore at the University of Illinois.
“It’s not work for me,” Bitzer said. “It’s all fun.”
Bitzer is one of Vu’s inspirations, as is Tiffany Barnes, associate professor of computer science. Barnes founded Dancing with Wolves, a ballroom dancing club at NC State, and motivated Vu to join. Vu was so inspired by professional ballroom dancers that he became an elite ballroom dancer himself. Dancing for 12 years, he rose to some of the highest levels of competition.
“I joined when I was taking her computer science class as an undergraduate, which eventually led me to becoming a championship dancer, winning awards at the national level,” Vu said. “I specialized in Latin ballroom, including cha-cha, rumba, samba, paso doble and jive, but I also danced waltz, tango, quickstep, foxtrot, swing, etc.”
Also during grad school, Vu joined the “FastTrac” entrepreneurial training program with the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, which provided him with a foundation in business. After earning his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at NC State, Vu became the co-founder and CEO of RiboWiz Scientific last October.
“NC State’s ‘Think and Do’ ethic has inspired me to become an inventor, innovator and entrepreneur,” Vu said. “My vision is to make a significant and lasting impact in biotechnology and medicine, and NC State has empowered me to take the first step in this journey.”