The Sceptical Chymist | Reactions – Younan Xia

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1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I became a chemist accidentally. In China, when you enter college, you have to take an entrance exam on seven subjects including maths, chemistry, physics, biology, English, Chinese, and Marxism (for me, this was in 1982). The exam is a national event, which typically occurs at the beginning of each June. Right after the exam, you shortlist colleges and majors. My first choice was Xi’an Jiaotong University (one of the finest engineering schools in China), with a major in manufacturing. At the very last second, I changed this (at the suggestion of my high school physics teacher) to the University of Science and Technology of China, with a major in chemical physics because I felt my chemistry exam had gone better than the rest! In the Chinese system, it is impossible to change your major once you have been admitted (now it is more flexible but can still be difficult). So, that is how I ended up in a chemistry program and how I eventually became a chemist. In retrospect, I think that this last-second change has completely changed the trajectory of my professional career, as well as my life.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be and why?

I think I would have been a good engineer. I am always curious about how things work and I also enjoy making things from scratch. Interestingly, after so many years (25 years!) my ‘dream’ has finally come true, as I have recently switched from chemistry to biomedical engineering.

3. How can chemists best contribute to the world at large?

By working together with scientists from other disciplines to address and solve some of the major problems faced by our society which include better instruments for diagnosing diseases, more effective drugs for curing diseases, better materials for various applications, more efficient energy sources, and above all, making a cleaner environment to live in.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

An alchemist. I imagine we would have an interesting conversation because I know so much about chemistry and they would know very little. However, they would be very creative – they never tired of trying new things and formulating new theories.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

A long time ago! When I started as an assistant professor in the fall of 1997, I had only one postdoc in my group for several months and we did many experiments together, including crystallization of colloidal spheres such as polystyrene beads into opaline lattices and microscopic and spectral characterization. As the group has grown in size, my role has changed completely. Nevertheless, I still walk around the lab a few times every day (if I am in town) to chat with group members about their research projects. I do hope my experimental skills have not decayed to the level of a high school student!

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one CD would you take with you?

I would take a history book with me. For some reasons, I always want to know what has happened, and how/why it happened. In terms of a CD, my favourite is one full of some Chinese popular songs from the early 80s. The songs remind me a lot of good memories from my high school and college days.

Younan Xia is in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, and works on developing novel nanomaterials with controlled properties and applying them to various biomedical applications.

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