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Inspiration with global impact

Lehigh professor’s journey into academia becomes #1 selling Indonesian children’s book


Growing up in Indonesia, Nelson Tansu considered books his best friends. So there’s some poetic justice now that, decades later, a book about the life of this Lehigh University professor – albeit in cartoon form --  is flying off the shelves and into the hands of Indonesian kids who may one day follow in his footsteps.

Gramedia, the largest book publisher and distributor in Indonesia, released an English version of Nelson: The Boy Who Loved to Read, by author Adela Gozali Yose, in late October 2015. The Indonesian version of the book, Nelson Si Kecil yang Suka Baca, has been on the market and ranked as a bestseller since September of this year. In less than 6 weeks after its initial release, Nelson rocketed into the top 10 list for bestselling Indonesian children’s books, and holds the country’s top spot for sales in the "children’s educational" category.

"This is an inspirational book with great impact for Indonesian children," says Siti Gretiani, General Manager, Gramedia. "The book highlights the importance of reading and education, and stresses the significance of having big dreams and the persistence required to achieve them. These values are delivered through a fun and captivating story complete with colorful and vibrant illustration, and we’re working to make it as widely accessible as possible to children in all corners of Indonesia."

The pro-education community in Indonesia has leapt into action to leverage the book’s goal of opening young minds to the power of education. Numerous foundations, corporations, agencies, and even private donors are distributing the book to needy communities and orphanages throughout Indonesia. The National Library of Indonesia, Bank Rakyat Indonesia and The United States Agency for International Development are among the most active organizations in supporting the effort.

Tansu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Lehigh, said he wants the book’s publicity to focus on its central message about the importance of education -- and of persistence in pursuing one’s goals. He’s also keen on introducing America, and Lehigh, to young Indonesians. In July, he was featured as a guest on Indonesia’s top-rated talk show, Kick Andy, to share his life story. The book was selected as the highlighted children’s book at this year’s Indonesian International Book Fair, and as one of the books representing Indonesia in the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair.

"Videos and Instagram photos of children poring over the book intently and with great enthusiasm is truly touching to me," says Nelson. "If my story plants a few seeds among those children, if a few of them think ‘if he can do it, so can I,’ then I think we’ll have achieved something truly valuable."

Dreaming big

By his own admission a bookish, inquisitive child, Nelson’s love of reading and learning was rare in his home country. Indonesia is a developing nation comprised of a quarter billion people – a melting pot of ethnic and religious communities sprawled across an archipelago of 17 thousand islands. The country’s colonial history, its social and income inequality, and the sheer logistical realities of its landscape have combined to create widespread poverty in many areas, and opportunities for advanced education and research are difficult to find.

The book details Nelson’s early life as he struggled to fit in with his peers while feeding his voracious curiosity. His hard work and dedication to learning – even life lessons on the badminton court – paid off, and at the age of 17 he travelled to the United States to attend The University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he earned undergraduate and doctoral degrees in applied physics and engineering. A rising star in photonics and nanotechnology research, Tansu joined the faculty of Lehigh’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at 25. Eleven years later, in 2014 he was named as Lehigh’s Daniel E. ’39 and Patricia M. Smith Endowed Chair Professor and Director of the Center for Photonics and Nanoelectronics.

Nelson leads a nanotech research team that focuses on physics and device technologies of semiconductor nanostructures for photonics and energy-efficiency applications. His team’s work has been published widely in more than 106 refereed journal and 200+ conference publications, and he currently holds 14 U.S. patents. He has served as a panelist for the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and other agencies in the U.S. and abroad, and has given numerous lectures, seminars, and invited talks in universities, research institutions, and conferences around the world. Recently, his group's work has received the IEEE's Best Paper Award on Nanophotonics and its Best Crystal Growth Image Award, as well as new support from the NSF in ongoing work in semiconductors for solid state lighting.

As founding director of Lehigh’s Center for Photonics and Nanoelectronics, Nelson worked to merge two previous centers, the Center for Optical Technologies, which was devoted to photonics research, and the Sherman Fairchild Center for Solid-State Studies, which concentrated on research in electronics and solid state devices.

"The goal of CPN," he says, "is to transform the science of photonics and nanoelectronics in ways that help us develop material devices and device architecture to meet society’s grand challenges. By combining a strong foundation in computational, materials, devices and integrated systems with core expertise in photonics and nanoelectronics, we enable faculty and students to work on advancing the frontiers of science and technology with ambitious and long-term vision."

And maybe someday, an ambitious young student with a long-term vision will show up at the CPN’s doors, clutching a dog-eared copy of Nelson: The Boy Who Loved to Read.

-Gabby Romano '16 is a student-writer with the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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