Fascinated with chemistry and academia since childhood, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Chunli uses his experience to help the next generation.
Chunli was born in China in 1953. His father, a school teacher, inspired his passion for learning, which led him to pursue an academic career. After finishing high school, he enrolled in the department of chemistry at Peking University:
“Ultimately, it was my interest in how things worked at the most fundamental level that inspired me to study chemistry.”
Ground breaking work
After graduating from university, Chunli went on to complete a Master's degree in 1981 and finished his PhD in 1985, both with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He then moved to California, US, to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology from 1985 to 1987. At that time, Chunli became fascinated by Binnig and Rohrer’s ground breaking invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) and used this in his own research.
Chunli returned to China in 1987 and worked with a team to build China’s first ever STM. This didn’t come without its challenges. Funding for basic science in China was extremely poor at the time and resources were limited, meaning that his team had to manufacture all the components and electronics for the microscope from scratch. However, through hard work and sheer persistence, despite many failures, they succeeded. Fascinated with being able to “see how the molecules worked" Chunli quickly recognised the enormous potential of the microscope and its applications. He reflects on how this research has evolved since: “This area has now expanded to the design and preparation of molecular nanostructures, self-assembly, novel nanomaterials, molecular nanodevices, single molecule detection, and really opened up the world in ways we could not have imagined.”
How things have changed
The early part of Chunli’s career in China in the 1980s was characterised by poor governmental support and limited resources, but he has seen enormous change and growth in science funding since then:
“It is a good time to be a scientist in China now – our nation’s continued economic development has allowed the government to invest heavily in science and technology. It is really gratifying for me to see so many Chinese scientists making so many achievements that were utterly impossible to imagine 20 years ago.”
Chunli himself has had a significant impact on chemistry in China and has held the position of President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) since 2011. In this time, he has overseen the transformation of the Graduate School of CAS into the University of CAS (UCAS) which, with over 40,000 students, is one of the world’s largest graduate institutions.
He feels it is now essential to train future scientists and engineers to support China’s economic expansion and has implemented a number of schemes aimed at connecting students at UCAS with real-life research at CAS institutes.
Follow your passion
Chunli has had to overcome a lot of challenges in his career, particularly at the start, but he believes that “nothing is difficult if you put your heart into it.” His advice to anyone starting out on a career in science is:
“Follow your passion and you will be rewarded. You will also need to keep your curiosity and treat research work as a pursuit of interest, instead of just a means of subsistence.”
Words by Elisabeth Ratcliffe
Images courtesy of Chunli Bai
Published November 2015