How to Best Deliver the Benefits of Chemistry — Interview with H. Peng

How to Best Deliver the Benefits of Chemistry — Interview with H. Peng

Author: Jaslyn Tan and Bruce Li

Professor Huisheng Peng, Fudan University, China, talks to Jaslyn Tan and Bruce Li for ChemViews about the International Year of Chemistry 2011, his career path and research. He discusses how we best deliver the benefits of chemistry to the public, gives advice for people wanting to follow a chemistry-based career path, looks at how chemistry publishers can support young chemists, and how to best contribute towards a sustainable world.

What does the International Year of Chemistry (IYC 2011) mean to you?

In July this year, I was invited to give two public presentations entitled “Chemistry for a better life” at Shanghai Science and Technology Museum by the Chinese Chemical Society. They were one part of the celebration activities for the International Year of Chemistry 2011 and were sponsored by Akzo Nobel Company. The presentations were given to young students at primary school and middle school. To make the presentations good and attract the students’ interest, I had to read a lot of documents and literature and also learn a lot from other colleagues. Although it is well-known that chemistry has played an important role in our lives for the past thousands of years, you only come to understand how critical it is through a systematic study of the history of chemistry. Particularly, you come to recognize that almost all the critical challenges humans are currently facing, such as the energy crisis, have to be solved by chemistry.

Is this reflected in your daily work?

In my lab, we are focusing on the development of novel materials for solar cells and lithium ion batteries. For instance, we are trying to replace indium tin oxide and platinum with an aligned carbon nanotube/polymer composite material. It is widely recognized that both indium and platinum are expensive and very limited resources. Therefore, the development of a new electrode material may make the large-scale application of both solar cells and lithium ion batteries possible and greatly enhance our life in the future. Without question, people will benefit from these new technologies. I always encourage my students, and myself, by telling them that our work may change the people’s lives and even their minds. I will be very proud to see products based on our research achievements on the market.

Who has inspired you most in chemistry?

When looking back over my research career, I first want to thank two senior chemists, Professor Ming Jiang and Professor Daoyong Chen, from my Master’s degree at Fudan University. Professor Jiang was the lab leader, and Professor Chen directly advised my Master’s thesis. At the beginning of my Master’s degree, I never thought that I could become a faculty member at a university. I planned to find a job at an international company in Shanghai after graduation, and hoped to be a manager after a few years. Professors Jiang and Chen had changed my mind by the time I graduated in 2003. After three years of research, they had taught me one important thing: I could be a good scientist if I work hard. For example, I had successfully synthesized a series of block copolymers by an anionic living polymerization in several months although I did not have any research experience then and was not totally familiar with the technology either.

Once I realized this, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the USA, and basically concluded that I should devote my life to chemistry. The Ph.D. further strengthened my decision.

What has been the highlight of your career in chemistry?

In terms of research, I would say the work on the carbon nanotube/polymer composite material in the last three years at Fudan University. Also, setting up my own lab and group has been a highlight. I was lucky enough to be offered a faculty position at Fudan in October 2008. The labs had been well equipped prior to my arrival, and I just ordered some chemicals and basic instruments to get my research started after only a month. I also received a good start-up fund at the beginning of my research, which helped.

In the three years since setting up the lab, we have developed a series of highly aligned carbon nanotube/polymer materials, and successfully used them as electrode materials for organic solar cells and lithium ion batteries. We will continue this idea and are sure to work out a family of novel energy materials. I also feel very lucky to have strong support from my colleagues and to work with some brilliant graduate students and other researchers in the lab. I greatly enjoy working with them.

What are your next goals in research?

We will continue the study on using the carbon nanotube/polymer material for organic solar cells and lithium ion batteries. There is still a lot of work waiting for us, particularly, further improvements in the mechanical and electrical properties of the composite so it can meet the requirements for practical applications.

The final goal is to develop a family of novel optoelectronic and electronic devices based on this new material. We also hope to develop a family of high-performance structural materials based on the carbon nanotube/polymer composite. I expect that we can make the above progress in the next five to ten years.

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

A lot of suggestions have been made about this issue, and different people have different ideas. In my opinion, you’d better ask yourself a very simple question before making a decision: Do you love chemistry?

If yes, then you should be very careful in choosing a research direction. To this end, you may ask a series of questions such as what direction you are most interested in and what you are good at. To help you answer them, you should try to talk to some senior scientists, particularly, your advisors. They are very familiar with you and the chemical research, and can give you feedback, suggestions and comments.

Another important route is to read some biographies about chemists, especially those from the beginning of modern chemistry. You can draw much inspiration from the experiences of the pioneers in chemistry.

How can we best deliver the benefits of chemistry to all people around the world? And how can we educate society about these benefits?

I think it is important to organize regular scientific activities for the public. They should be free and the public media should be encouraged to join them. Scientists, especially those who can make presentations very interesting, should be invited to deliver all kinds of seminars. Humankind is facing a lot of big challenges, and chemistry surely plays a critical role in solving them. People may dimly realize that chemistry is important, but they do not know clearly how important it is. We should give them more details to impress it upon them.

From my own experience, I can say that this does work. I presented two seminars on how important chemistry is in solving the ten global challenges of the last fifty years. I talked to some parents and children after the seminars, and they were highly impressed. One kid told me that he wanted to be a chemist because he loved the magical chemical experiments.

Another important issue is that more low-cost chemistry books for the public should be published. Also, television programs related to chemistry could be continuously provided with new magical chemical experiments through greater engagement with the media.

How can chemistry publishers best support the advancement of science?

Publishers are very important to the advancement of science. Firstly, they improve academic communications and co-operations. For instance, they regularly highlight the recent important developments in chemistry and invite experts to summarize the main challenges, particularly in interdisciplinary research fields. They even sponsor some symposiums at international conferences and publish the results.

Secondly, they can do a lot of things particularly for young researchers and scientists. They can organize academic activities aimed at graduate students in the field of chemistry, e.g., workshops on a series of chemical topics, seminars by invitation of senior scientists, and workshops to improve the writing and presentation skills.

Finally, they can do a lot of things to encourage more brilliant young people to get involved in science and get the public support. For instance, a series of public scientific activities can be organized in target to solve some critical social problems, e.g., energy crisis and environmental problems. We can educate people about how chemistry can make things different and how critical it will be in the future.

Do we still need printed chemistry books and journals?

Frankly speaking, I have not read printed journals in the last five years and I notice that many colleagues have not either. There are several reasons, I guess. Primarily, it normally takes a long time for the library to receive the printed international journals, therefore, it is quicker to read the issues online.

In addition, it is not convenient to collect and distribute interesting printed papers within the group — I can easily download the electronic versions and send them to the other group members. Additionally, you can quickly and efficiently find the required papers by just browsing the graphical abstract. Many papers are published online once they have been accepted by many publishers, so we can catch the recent developments in our field more quickly.

However, I do need printed chemistry books. It is fine to read a paper of a few pages at the computer, but it is not easy to read a book with more than a hundred pages at a computer. I often feel uncomfortable and cannot focus on reading a long electronic document. In the past three years, I have read at least fifteen printed books on chemistry. I like to take one or two printed books with me when I travel and enjoy reading them while waiting for the plane, for example.

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

The first answer that springs to mind is that chemistry will be critical to solve the energy crisis. For example, it is highly desired to synthesize various novel materials for the effective use of sustainable energy sources like sunlight and wind. Many chemical research groups are dedicated to developing novel organic solar cells to meet the practical requirements.

Secondly, my specialty is polymer chemistry, so I’d also like to answer this question from a polymer viewpoint. Without question, it is difficult to imagine what the world would be without polymer materials. The three main synthetic polymers, i.e., plastic, elastomer, and fiber, dominate our current way of life. For instance, the production of plastic is twice that of steel. However, this also creates some environmental problems. Plastics are called white rubbish in China. Therefore, it is highly desired to develop green polymer materials. For example, degradable ones.

Huishen Peng, Fudan UniversityProfessor Huisheng Peng received his B.S. degree in Polymeric Materials Science and Engineering from Donghua University, China, in 1999, his M.S. degree in Macromolecular Chemistry and Physics from Fudan University, China, in 2003, and his Ph.D. degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from Tulane University, USA, in 2006. He worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, US Department of Energy, USA, for two years before joining the Fudan University faculty.

He is currently a professor at the Laboratory of Advanced Materials and Department of Macromolecular Science.

His research centers on the fabrication and application of aligned carbon nanotube/polymer composite materials for electronic and sensing applications. He has published nearly 40 peer-reviewed papers in leading international journals and has applied for 16 national and international patents.

Huisheng Peng’s Webpage

Selected Awards

  • 2010 Li Foundation Heritage Prize for Excellence in Creativity, USA
  • 2010 Young Chemist Award, Chinese Chemical Society
  • 2010 Shanghai Leading Talent, Shanghai Government
  • 2009 CCS-Wiley Youth Chemical Paper Prize, Chinese Chemical Society
  • 2009 New Century Talent, Ministry of Education of China
  • 2009 Shanghai Pujiang Talent, Science and Technology Commission of Shanghai Municipality

Selected Publications

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