Interview Live for Prof Peng-How to Best Deliver the Benefits of Chemistry




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

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?

    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.

    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.

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