H.N. Cheng (PhD, '74) continues to see the possibilities in chemistry

Date

10/31/21

H.N. Cheng first became intrigued with chemistry in a high school lab performing chemical reactions, distillation, and pH titrations.

“They entailed simple procedures, but I could see future possibilities,” said Cheng, (PhD, '74, Gutowsky), who is a research chemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and current President of the American Chemical Society.

Cheng has never stopped seeing the possibilities, focusing much of his research in his more-than-40-year career on developing green chemistry methodologies related to agro-based materials and using them to produce eco-friendly and sustainable products.

As a research chemist with the USDA, he has used natural renewable raw materials, including polysaccharides, proteins, and triglycerides, as source materials for new chemistry and products; exploited biocatalysts, including enzymes and micro-organisms, for chemical and polymer conversions; applied green chemistry concepts to conversion and processing; and developed green methodologies to promote development of green products.

“R&D work in chemistry has been exciting for me, because this is my chosen vocation,” he said. “I think it is very helpful for a person to love what he does and do what he loves.”

As ACS president, Cheng joins a long list of Illinois Chemistry alumni and faculty members to have served in that position. Cheng will serve as ACS president through the end of this year, then as immediate past president in 2022.

Prior to the USDA, he was Senior Research Fellow at Hercules Incorporated in Wilmington, Delaware, where he held various R&D and managerial positions. He has authored or co-authored more than 285 papers and 26 patent publications, and edited 23 books.

Throughout his career, both in industry and his nearly 40 years as a member of the ACS, he has found many Illini among his colleagues.

“We have always gotten along well. The fact that we are Illinois alums frequently speeds up a friendship,” said Cheng, who graciously took time to answer a few questions, from graduate student memories, to career advice for current Illinois chemistry students to some highlights from the past year leading the ACS.

What are some of your fondest memories as a graduate student at Illinois?

I had many fond memories during my time at Illinois.

When I was a grad student, I enjoyed the camaraderie and the collaboration among the graduate students and postdocs. We freely discussed our work and exchanged ideas. I think that was a very positive aspect of my graduate school years.

An occasional pastime was to take a tea break at the Illini Union in the afternoon. A few fellow grad students and I would spend 30-45 minutes talking about the latest news or life in general. After we solved the world’s problems, we would go back to our problems in the labs.

A few times, my research group met for coffee break at the Illini Union. Sometimes my advisor, Prof. Herb Gutowsky [a pioneer in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy], would join us. Once he came late and said, “I come to give you an excuse to stay here longer.” The conversations were always very informative. They were mostly about science and (sometimes) about the scientific community.

I was also fortunate that Prof. Gutowsky trusted me. He did not question my choice of research, the courses that I took, my expenditures, or my style of work. In a way, he treated me more like a postdoc than a student. I tried to respond to his management style by working independently. I know this laissez faire style of management might not be suitable for every student, but it worked for me. When I graduated, I knew I could carry out independent research by myself.

One of my fondest memories was an encounter with Prof. Gutowsky in the hallway of the Noyes Lab, not long after I signed up to work for him. He said, “Are you working today?”  I said, “Yes, I work every day.” He looked very pleased. He said, “When I was younger, I used to work as hard as you.” I reminded him that it was Saturday, and he was obviously working.  He laughed.

Can you share some career advice with current Illinois chemistry graduate students?

I would advise them to work hard and be an expert in their thesis research. Most graduate students spend 3-5 years on their thesis work. That is a good chunk of time that they are investing. They should learn everything about their project, not only the literature, the techniques, but the potential impact and applications. Of course, they need to produce results and keep their advisors happy.

Beyond their PhD work, I believe it is desirable to develop an awareness of and interest in related (or even unrelated) scientific topics. One option is to acquire the knowledge and the skills of a second field. An expertise in a second field can be useful in complementing (or supplementing) a person’s capabilities. It may also provide opportunities for possible postdoc (or job) openings in the future. If the student is interested in an industrial career, then he or she may want to improve his/her knowledge of industrial processes and product development. Soft skills (like communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, and project management) are highly valued in industry. An internship in industry or government lab (if available) can be very helpful.

Tell us more about R&D work from your perspective:

It may be important to note that R&D may be somewhat different in academia, industry, and government. In academia, most of the research work ends up in publications, but in industry the R&D efforts are mostly directed towards product or process development. Although industrial companies do publish papers, these are often not the emphasis of the R&D and not necessarily encouraged. When I was in industry, I tried to work two shifts, where I put in 40-60 hours every week on company projects and then another 20-40 hours at night and on weekends on more fundamental research. In this way, I could do a good job for my company while still maintaining my skills and knowledge in cutting-edge research. Later on, as I got more involved with ACS, I realized the need for me to take on more leadership roles. I find these roles exciting as well, because I can contribute in a different way to my profession and my colleagues.

When you became ACS president you said diversity and inclusion are important to you. Can you share why you feel that way?

Perhaps my feelings are related to my experience. Over the years, I have collaborated in my research work with many people. For example, for my publications, I have worked with colleagues from different parts of the world. I have always respected my collaborators and noticed that a diversity of backgrounds among the collaborators actually provides better input and generates better research results. Indeed, studies have shown that diversity and inclusion in the workplace improve organizational performance, stimulate innovation and problem-solving, and enhance collaboration. In our increasingly global environment, diversity also promotes cultural understanding and cooperation. Thus, I believe diversity and inclusion is important to the chemistry enterprise. It is the right thing for us to do as citizens, and it is a smart thing for us to do as scientists.

What are some highlights, so far, of your year as President of ACS?

My Presidential platform is “Growth, Collaboration, and Advocacy.” In a highly competitive world, growth is desirable and necessary. Some of the ways we can help grow the chemistry enterprise include innovation and disciplinary growth, industrial engagement and entrepreneurship, international collaborations, and advocacy for science and public and government support.

From history, we know that innovation is the engine of growth for most organizations. A major component of innovation is to seek emerging areas for research and to use them for new applications and opportunities. Working with the ACS Committee on Science, we organized three ACS webinars (Frontier Fridays) in May and June 2021, featuring new innovative research three professors: Zhenan Bao on “Skin-Inspired Organic Electronics,” Amy Prieto on “Lithium Ion Batteries: The Road to Sustainable Energy Storage,”and Sir Fraser Stoddart (2016 Nobel Laureate) on “Artificial Molecular Machines.” All three webinars were highly successful with huge turnouts.

The Committee of Science and I also organized a presidential symposium at ACS Fall 2021 meeting on “New Frontiers and Opportunities for Chemistry.” Thirty-five distinguished speakers were invited to share their cutting-edge research in advanced materials, nanotechnology, reticular chemistry, catalysis, biomedical, electronics, environment, and sustainability. Read more about his work with ACS.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not in the lab?

Even for a dedicated scientist and a confirmed workaholic like me, I have many interests outside chemistry. For example, I am a student of world history. I love to study history because we can learn a lot from it. When I do a chemistry project, I need to focus quickly on the problems and the solutions. However, in history it helps to think about the big picture and the relative situation of a problem within the big picture. These alternative thought processes (being able to think big or small) have been helpful in my career. I am also a Christian, and my knowledge of history (especially church history) has been helpful when I teach Sunday school, as I often do. By the way, I also enjoy writing poetry; it is a good way to keep myself entertained. In college and afterwards, I found out that poetry can be an excellent medium to express my thoughts and emotions. Here is an example of my effort.

Indeed, I write poems once in a while
When I feel frustrated or elated.
If they give someone a laugh or a smile,
By chance, perhaps, they’re appreciated.

Though poems differ in structure and style,
Most of them are craftily created.
They may be heartfelt, high-flown, or hostile,
Through which our emotions are translated.

Yes, few chemists fit a poet’s profile;
Like fire and air, they are unrelated.
Yet, the human impulse is versatile,
And all of us can be motivated.

Thus, if you read or write poems at times,
Let’s have fun dancing with rhythms and rhymes.

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