In 2013, Wei Wang obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry from Penn State. In this alum interview, Wang tells us how he made the decision to leave his home country of China and move all the way to State College, Pennsylvania where he pursued a successful graduate school experience with the Mallouk Lab. He further explains how his Ph.D. journey led him to his current career in academia.
Kathryn: When did you first become interested in chemistry?
Wei: I got interested in chemistry in junior high school and then took part in various high school national chemistry contests. My passion in chemistry eventually carried over to university and has continued to this day!
Kathryn: How did you decide upon the Penn State Chemistry graduate program?
Wei: Penn State Chemistry was the first graduate school offer I received in February 2008. I still remember the excitement when my university roommate texted me that there was an overseas package waiting for me in my dorm. A few more offers came afterward, but I was really interested in the Mallouk lab and that was one of the main reasons that I took this offer. I am happy I made that decision, and continuously grateful for the opportunity.
Kathryn: What facet of chemistry were you most interested in and why?
Wei: Coming into grad school I had some experience with inorganic nanomaterials, so it was natural that I got very interested in the research in the Mallouk lab. Over the years, I became quite interested with physical chemistry, particularly colloids and interfaces, because it had the rigor from physics and the hands-on aspect of chemistry. The toolbox of material chemistry that I acquired from Penn State and the Mallouk lab had proven pivotal in this investigation.
Kathryn: Was there someone within the chemistry department who had a positive impact on you during your time here?
Wei: First and foremost, my Ph.D. advisor Tom Mallouk was the key figure in shaping my career. He has been a great example of an excellent scientist and a great human being. Professor Ayusman Sen was a co-mentor and extremely helpful and supportive in every aspect of my Ph.D. study. I also owe many thanks to my committee member Professor Chris Keating, whose research continues to inspire mine. In addition, I want to applaud the staff members in the stock room, in the department office, and the janitors, who helped the department to operate at a high level and smoothly.
Kathryn: Did you find difficulties in the transition between graduate school and a career in academia?
Wei: One of the most challenging aspects was to shift my role from a “frontline soldier fighting in the trenches” to someone leading from behind. This transition took a few years, but it’s something I learned through experience. The new leadership role called for a completely different set of skills and brought completely new headaches. Looking back, I wish someone could have prepared me by explaining how professors spent their days, and what exactly they were busy with.
Kathryn: What resources were most helpful to you when searching for and applying for academic jobs?
Wei: I immediately left the States and went back home to China but just like in the States, I used job postings from Chinese services, as well as those on university websites. Personal contacts were also very useful.
Kathryn: How did you decide upon pursuing a career in academia and research?
Wei: Interestingly, my career plan changed back and forth over my Ph.D. I wanted to go into industry at the beginning because I knew Penn State had a strong industrial connection, but later changed my mind and thought academia was pretty cool. However, as I approached graduation, I wanted to find a job in industry again, only realizing how competitive the job market was (in 2013) and landing zero offers. That was part of the reason why I went back to China.
Kathryn: What was the most important thing you did during your time as a graduate student that helped you get where you are now as a full professor?
Wei: My Ph.D. experience prepared me for a professorship in many ways. First, because my advisor was quite hands-off, I got the luxury to try (and fail at) many things. Most of the things I picked up didn’t help immediately but proved to be useful down the road. Second, I had to be self-motivated and self-reliant, which forced me to find collaborators and push projects forward on my own. This is critical for independent research. Finally, although there were certainly ups and downs, I had (for the most part) stayed positive and passionate about research. This was thanks to my caring research group and advisor. In the end, I didn’t have a shiny resume, but I did have the right mentality and good skills to go forward. My advisor and my committee members were very supportive even after I graduated.
Kathryn: In your current teaching appointment with the School of Materials Science and Engineering at HIT (Shenzhen), what is it like working alongside students who share the same interests as you?
Wei: It is not always easy to find students who share the same research interests. When it does happen, I feel extremely lucky, and can learn a lot from them. It’s also possible for the students to resonate with me, to inspire new ideas and new research directions.
Kathryn: How can graduate students make the most of their time while in school?
Wei: When I look back on my time at Penn State, I remember spending many moments wandering around the town and hanging out with my friends. These times lead to some beautiful memories. I also wasted quite some time working on dead projects. I’m sure I would’ve been much more productive if I could eliminate that wasted time, but in the end, we won’t learn unless we make mistakes. I can also give two specific suggestions: sleep, wake up early, and make weekly plans.
Kathryn: What does your current research cover and why does it matter NOW?
Wei: Much of my current research focuses on the so-called synthetic micro swimmers, tiny particles that convert energy stored in their environment and swim autonomously. We try to understand how they swim, how they communicate, and how they self-organize into large structures that vary in space and time. In many ways, these tiny swimmers remind us of their biological cousins—microbes, cells, etc.—and understanding synthetic micro swimmers might just help us unlock the hidden secrets in microorganisms. Furthermore, the knowledge acquired could inspire biomimetic microrobots that deliver drugs to our bodies, or repair sophisticated circuits in hard-to-reach places.
Kathryn: Looking back on your graduate school experiences, are there opportunities you wish you had taken advantage of?
Wei: During my Ph.D. I was mostly focused on my own research and paid little attention to the world outside of my own bench. Meanwhile, exciting research was happening across the campus in food science, engineering, and in our own chemistry building. I wish I had talked to more people from different departments and different labs. I wish I had learned what they were doing, how they felt about my research, and what useful skills they could have taught me. In a giant community such as Penn State, the biggest mistake is to nest in your own cocoon.
Kathryn: Lastly, can you recall your favorite memory as a Penn State Chemistry student?
Wei: For some reason, the first thing that popped up in my head was my noon nap at the bridge connecting the chemistry and biology building. The seat cushion was very comfortable, and the large glass window offered fantastic views of the campus and (in good weather) Nittany Mountain. That was a great place to loosen up between intense experiments (and even better with free pizza).