Interview with W. H. Chan, Hong Kong Baptist University

Interview with W. H. Chan, Hong Kong Baptist University

Author: Jaslyn Tan, Wing-Hong Chan

Wing-Hong Chan is Professor of the Department of Chemistry at the Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong SAR, China. Beloved by his students, he is not only a renown scientist, but also a passionate lecturer.

Jaslyn Tan spoke with him for ChemViews magazine about his career, what excites him about chemistry, how chemistry education can best be supported around the world, and how chemistry can contribute towards a sustainable planet.


Professor Chan, looking at the IYC 2011 event at your university where you demonstrated the “Ignition of Hydrogen” and inspired a full-house of students (see picture), did you always want to teach?

I never considered teaching as my career aspiration when I was a chemistry student. In 1975, I received a first class honors degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and was ranked number one academically in the graduating class of about 50 students. Being the first in the class – although I grew up in a relatively poor family – I felt obliged to go overseas for a higher degree.

At the time, graduate education was essentially in its infancy in Hong Kong. After serving as a high school teacher for a year, I accepted a graduate studentship offer from the University of Alberta in Canada. The offer came together with a generous teaching assistantship, which was not only sufficient for my daily expenditure, but also allowed me to send back 100 Canadian dollars each month to Hong Kong to support my family.


W. H. Chan (middle) demonstrates the “Ignition of Hydrogen” during an IYC 2011 event held on April 2011 at Hong Kong Baptist University.


Where did you get your PhD and how did you like that time?

Lacking of any chemical research practical training in my undergraduate degree, I did not progress well in my initial graduate work relating to natural products synthesis. I remember vividly, in the first ten months, the only achievement of my research in the organic research laboratory was cleaning the glassware.

I was blessed to have a patient and inspired PhD supervisor, Prof. H. J. Liu, who rendered continuous encouragement which I needed so dearly at the time. Through numerous failures in scientific trials, I acquired preservation and a steadfast drive for improvement. From September 1976 to June 1979, I worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day in the laboratory. Working industrially paid off. Within 30 months I not only completed all the graduation requirements, but also gained co-authorship of 5 publications and accomplished the total synthesis of a sesquiterpene called zizanoic acid through a 17-step reaction sequence.


What did you do after receiving your PhD?

I did not stay in my PhD supervisor’s group as he recommended I accept a postdoctoral position at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), USA. Under the supervision of the late Prof. R.V. Stevens, I was engaged on his on-going, ambitious project to synthesize vitamin B12. During this one year of stay in Los Angeles, I became a committed Christian and decided to go back to Hong Kong to serve the community.


Who has inspired you most in chemistry and during your career?

I am blessed that I encountered a number of inspired teachers during my undergraduate study. At that time, Hong Kong was under the administration of the British Colonial Government, and university education was only open to the elite. The mandate of the university faculty was to teach and there was no expectation on research output. However, scholars that had returned from North American universities served as our teachers. Most of them were caring and knowledgeable scholars.

In particular, I was motivated by lively presentations by my organic and inorganic chemistry teachers. Not only were their lecture materials super, but also they often confronted us with challenging problems. In such an inducible learning environment, I built up a solid foundation in the four pillars of chemistry – organic, inorganic, physical and analytical.

When I entered the graduate school at University of Alberta, I had no difficulty in passing all four placement examinations and progressed smoothly into the PhD program. Specifically, I was fascinated with organic chemistry. We benefited a lot by the excellent organic chemistry textbook written by Hendrickson, Cram and Hammond.

In late 1979, I finally met Donald Cram at UCLA and had a number of occasions to attend his lectures. He is a world class scientist and a gifted teacher. His skills in synthetic chemistry coupled with his insights in molecular interactions have crystallized a new field of “host-guest” chemistry. In retrospect, my first phase of independent work, which focused on using ‘calixarenes” as the active host materials for the design and development of ion-selective electrodes, and later on, my work on optode membranes have been inspired by his work. Although Donald is a top scientist, he has never shied away from his “divine role” to inspire young learners by delivering introductory organic chemistry lectures at UCLA.

I enjoy teaching and have a passion for the growth of young people. The role model of a great master like Donald has shed light on my career pursuits both as a scientist and chemical educator.


What excites you about chemistry today?

Chemistry is a central science and contributes significantly to almost all branches of new knowledge. The development of new materials, including nanomaterials, has been exerting great impact to the well being of humankind. I have two colleagues working very hard on the design of active materials for solar cell applications. One focuses his efforts on synthesizing conducting polymeric metal complexes while the other designs oligomeric conjugating light harvesting materials. I have been intriguied with the potential impact of integrating functionalized gold nanoparticles or semiconducting quantum dots into medical research applications such as disease diagnosis and drug delivery. With collaboration between chemists, biologists, and medical scientists, through an interdisciplinary approach, nanotechnology promises to be a fertile field for cutting edge research.

In the next twenty years, nano-science and nanotechnology could play a crucial role in solving health problems, particularly in Alzheimer and cancer diseases.


What has been the highlight of your career in chemistry?

When I graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the mid-70s, it was quite easy to get a decent job with a good future in Hong Kong. Not surprisingly, very few of my classmates decided to take a “risk” of going abroad for postgraduate study. Owing to my passion to organic chemistry, I convinced myself that the postponement of entering the job market for several years, in exchange for a venture into the wonderland of chemical knowledge in a foreign country, was the right way to go.

When I returned to Hong Kong in 1980, there was essentially no teaching positions available in the two local universities. However, opportunity is conferred on the one that is prepared (i.e., proper training and high aspiration). I was fortunate enough to ride on the expansion tide of tertiary institutions in the mid-80s and to secure a position as a lecturer at Baptist University: In 1981, I was offered with a lectureship position by Hong Kong Baptist College, then a private Christian tertiary institution. My job assignments were mainly teaching and without any opportunity for chemical research. Starting in 1983, Hong Kong Baptist College became a fully funded tertiary institution. I was content with the opportunity of being a chemistry teacher and having the privilege to nurture young learners.

Working with my undergraduate students, in 1986, I published, with great excitement, my first refereed paper in the Journal of Chemical Education. Collaborating with my colleague Albert Lee, who received solid postdoctoral training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, under the supervision of Prof. Barry Sharpless, a famous Nobel laureate, we established a very successful undergraduate research program. We kept on publishing papers in the field of ion-selective electrodes for organic analysis, mostly in Analyst, a publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). During the period of 1988 – 1992, we took pride in being able to publish research papers relying only on the support from undergraduate students. Additionally, many of our undergraduate students were inspired to go abroad for PhD studies in chemistry.

In 1992, the Hong Kong Research Grant Council (HKRGC) was established and, since then, it has become the major competitive funding agency for local academia. In 1994, our College received the permission from the Government to ascend to the status of Hong Kong Baptist University. In the next seven years, I received funding support from the HKRGC and was allocated a PhD student quota. Through these funding provisions, I invited many scholars from mainland Chinese universities to join my research group for collaborations. I am grateful to be able to provide mentorship for a number of young and emerging scholars. My first four PhD students engaging in asymmetric synthesis or membranes applications are now faculty members of mainland Chinese universities. The qualification earned in our university enabled them to secure a tenure position in universities on the mainland. During 1998 – 2007, I served as the Head of the Chemistry Department. The outbreak of Asian financial crisis in 1999 triggered extensive budget cuts to the University from the Government over the next six years. Since then, I have exhaustively tried to up keep the spirits of the whole department and have become less productive in research.


How will you reach your next goal in chemistry?

To a certain extent, I am not content with staying in the same research field for long. I have broad interests in a variety of research areas. My academic training was in the field of organic synthesis of natural products. My ability to construct and manipulate molecules is a solid foundation and allows me to play around molecules for different purposes.

For instance, in the 90s, I designed and synthesized a series of new polyamidosulfonamides which turned out to be extremely tough and chemically stable polymeric membrane materials. Their applications in a variety of separating processes were demonstrated by us. They included reverse osmosis, microfiltration, nanofiltration and pervaporation. In collaboration with my colleague Albert Lee, we have produced some good work in asymmetric synthesis either through chiral auxiliaries or, recently, by organocatalysts. My other research has focused on the development of fluorescent chemosensors for cations, anions, and biological relevant organic molecules like aminoacids and ATP. I am fascinated with the potential use of those sensory probes in cellular environments.

Instead of broadening my research horizon with different interesting areas, I should drive my investigation deeper; from chemical sensing to biochemical sensing relevant to life processes. Perhaps, I shall stay on this cutting edge research area until I retire from my current position.


What advice would you give to someone considering a career in chemistry?

In the foreseeable future, chemistry as a single discipline seems unlikely to have any significant scientific breakthrough. However, I believe that chemistry and chemical principles are still indispensable for us to formulate strategies and innovations to solve the environmental, energy, and health problems confronting humankind.

The mindset of interdisciplinary approaches in tackling life’s questions and other research problems must be nurtured in every science student. Chemistry, being the central science, could generate ample opportunities for young chemists to contribute and excel. Both materials science and chemical biology are intellectually challenge fields of investigation.


How can we best support chemistry education around the world?

Education can transform an individual in an unimagined way. In general, effective science education can promote innovation and strengthen the capability of a country to further flourish. As a chemical educator and member of a university faculty, I can’t forgo my duty to contribute to the well being of our education system. Particularly, I feel obliged to render my expertise to frontline high school chemistry teachers as they are the one who can inspire or retard the interest of students in chemistry.

From time to time, I give top priority to the demand from the local Education Bureau to organize the Professional Development Program for High School Teachers. For instance, with the assistance of my colleagues, a total of 12 half-day teachers’ workshops on Implementing Microscale Chemistry Experiments were held in the last two years. Fun chemistry can only be generated from practical work. The details of the experiments in both Chinese and English can be accessed from the website of the program. The materials are available to all colleagues from other countries to adopt in their laboratory teaching.

From 2003 to 2007, I served as the coordinator of the project “Low-cost Instrumentation – Microscale Chemistry (LCI – MSC)” under the auspice of the FACS (the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies). On a number of occasions, I shared my expertise in this area at Microscale National Conferences in China and, once, in the Philippines.

The internet also enables us to share our insights, as well as teaching materials, with other parts of the world.


How can we best educate society about the role of chemistry in today’s world?

One of the missions identified by our university is to extend the impact of the University by engaging in “Community Service”. Specifically, by helping members of our community to be a more science literate. During my leadership of the Chemistry Department of HKBU, I purposely consolidated the strength of the department to launch many out-reach activities for high school teachers and students in the area of environmental and chemistry education. I established among our undergraduate students, a program called “Student Assistant Scheme” to encourage students to actively participaate in these out-reach programs. In June, in response to the invitation of a local primary school, I shall take part in their “Meeting Scientists Program” in which a group of primary school students will visit my research laboratory.

As chemists, we are blessed by the move of the United Nations to declare 2011 the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011). It provides us a unique platform to show to the public the relevance and contributions of chemistry to our daily lives and the sustainability of the humankind. As part of our IYC activities, on April 16 this year, we organized a very successful community out-reach event “Chemistry – Fun, Fun, Fun” (see pictures) which attracted over 800 people to our campus to attend lectures, see science exhibits, play chemistry-based fun games, experience laboratory demonstrations, and witness a Chemical Magic Show in which I was the magician.

We have also created a number of general education courses related to chemistry for non-science students at our university as electives aiming to broaden their knowledge. I was instrumental in a course entitled “Better living through chemistry”. As future society leaders, with the basic and vigorous exposure to complex science issues, our graduates will be able to make informed decision and express sensible views to influence the establishment of Government policies.


How can the field of chemistry best contribute towards a sustainable planet?

The protection of the environment and the reduction of reliance on fossil fuels are arguably two of the most important challenges confronting humankind and the sustainability of our society. We have witnessed in recent years, that integrating the efforts of both academia and chemical industrial practitioners can slow the deterioration of the planet. The 12 principles of green chemistry have become essential, even in the high school chemistry teaching curriculum. We anticipate that the next generation of chemists and chemical engineers will be much more environmentally alert.

The establishment of the “Presidential Awards on Green Chemistry” in the US, honors great inventions or innovations in green chemistry. It is a good Government initiative for other developed and developing countries to follow. Particularly China, as the major energy consumer and green-house gases producer, should establish more initiatives to join, hand-in-hand, with the rest of the world to remedy the situation. China has begun handing out funds for the development solar cells and bio-fuels which is an important step in the right direction.


Thank you very much for the interview!

Wing-Hong Chan (陳永康)
, received his B.Sc. in 1975, graduating with 1st class honours from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His PhD was obtained from the University of Alberta, Canada, in 1979. From 1979-80, he performed a postdoctoral stay at the University of California – Los Angeles, USA.
Today, he is Professor of the Department of Chemistry, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong.

His research fields include supramolecular chemistry, asymmetric synthesis, natural products synthesis, organic analysis, optical sensors, polymer synthesis, and membrane applications including reverse osmosis, ultrafiltration and pervaporation, and chemical education.


Honors and Awards

  • Included in “Marqius Who’s Who in the World”, 17th Edition, 2000
  • China Visiting Scholar Selected by the K.C. Wong Education Foundation, Aug. 2000
  • 1st Prize in “Science and Technology Award” (科學技術一等獎) by the “Chinese Association for Instrumental Analysis”, 2004 Title of the Award Winning Project: “Fluorescent chemosensor: Principle and New Methodologies” (a joint project with Peking University Scholars)
  • Hong Kong Baptist University President Teaching Award 2006, Hong Kong Baptist University


Selected Publications

  1. Ratiometric fluorescent Zn2+ chemosensor constructed by appending a pair of carboxamidoquinoline on 1,2-diaminocyclohexane scaffold,
    Xiaobo Zhou, Yunguo Lu, Jian-Fa Zhu, Wing-Hong Chan, Albert W. M. Lee, Pui-Shan Chan, Ricky N. S. Wong , N. K. Mak,
    Tetrahedron 2011, 67, 3412–3419.
    DOI: 10.1016/j.tet.2011.03.053
  2. Second Generation CaSH (Camphor Sulofnyl Hydrazine) Organocatalysis. Asymmetric Diels-Alder reactions and Isolation of the Catalytic Intermediate,
    Q. Li, W. Y. Wong, W. H. Chan, A. W. M. Lee,
    Adv. Synth. Catal. 2010, 352, 2142–2146.
    DOI: 10.1002/adsc.201000438
  3. Practical Synthetic Approach to Chiral Sulfonimides (CSIs) – Chiral Bronsted Acids for organocatalysis,
    H. He, L.-Y. Chen, W.-Y. Wong, W.-H. Chan, A. W. M. Lee,
    Eur. J. Org. Chem. 2010, 4181–4184.
    DOI: 10.1002/ejoc.201000477
  4. A colorimetric and fluorescent turn-on chemosensor for Zn2+ in aqueous media based on a multifunctionalized spirobenzopyran derivative,
    J-F. Zhu, H. Yuan, W. H. Chan, A. W. M. Lee,
    Org. Biomol. Chem. 2010, 8, 3957–3964.
    DOI: 10.1039/c004871b
  5. Spiropyran-based Fluorescent Anion Probe and Its application for Urinary Pyrophosphate Detection,
    N. Shao, H. Wang, X. Gao, R. H. Yang, W. H. Chan,
    Anal. Chem. 2010, 82, 4628–4636.
    DOI: 10.1021/ac1008089
  6. NAC-Capped Quantum Dot as Nuclear Staining Agent for Living Cells Via an In Vivo Steering Strategy,
    W. H. Chan, D. Zhao, Z. He, N. K. Mak, R. N. S. Wong, A. W. M. Lee, P. Chan,
    J. Phys. Chem. C 2010, 114, 6216–6221.
    DOI: 10.1021/jp908418v
  7. Design of Bis-spiropyran Ligands as Dipolar Molecule Receptors and Application to in vivo Glutathione Fluorescent probes,
    N. Shao, J. Jin, H. Wang, J. Zeng, R. H. Yang, W. H. Chan,
    J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2010, 132, 725–736.
    DOI: 10.1021/ja908215t


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