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Interview by David Bradley ISSUE #71
December 2007
Andrew Sun
Reactive Profile?Sun Rises in the East

Weixiang "Andrew" Sun is a graduate student in the College of Material Science & Engineering, at South China University of Technology, Guangzhou, PR China. He is interested in "bottom-up" approaches to constructing nanoscale materials and currently working on the thermogelation of a diblock copolymer and its inclusion complexes with alpha-cyclodextrin. Andrew's web blog On the Road is hosted by Nature Networks.

Tell us a little about your background and how you got into chemistry?

I got my BS degree in Biomedical Engineering at Jinan University, China, and became an MS graduate student at South China University of Technology. This is my third year of three. I'll move on to another group for my PhD degree. In China, MS and PhD careers are often separated. The department of Biomedical Engineering I was in could be described as a mixture of polymer science, digital signal processing engineering, and cell biology.

In the fourth year I chose polymers as my undergraduate project among the three because at that time I thought cell culture was too difficult and I am no good at physics.

After my undergrad project, in which I synthesized and polymerized lactide and did some primary characterization, I was fascinated by the work in the chemistry lab, i.e., the joy of separating, filtering, and recrystallizing my own compounds. I almost wished I could live in a chemistry lab forever. Everything started from there.

What chemistry are you working on right now?

I'm studying the self-assembly of an amphililic block copolymer in aqueous solution and its molecular recognition with cyclodextrin.

What kind of applications might there be for that work?

Amphiphilic block copolymers have been shown to self-assemble into micelles [akin to microscopic bubbles] of various shapes and sizes in water and are used for drug delivery or templates for 3D nanotechnology. Importing the host-guest chemistry of cyclodextrins may provide us with additional ways to control morphologies and networks so formed.

You're very active in the blogosphere, can you say why?

I maintain a chemistry blog (On The Road), which began life on Google's Blogger Blogspot system, but I migrated it to the Nature Network leaving the old one untouched. However, my first blog in English was not even chemistry related; I just wanted to practice English writing. Later when I started my MS project, I had the chance learn about a large scope of chemistry research by reading lots of papers, and really had a lot to say after all that reading. So, I started chemistry blogging by writing my thoughts on the papers I had read.

These days, the topics of my blog are much more diverse because there is so much more in the world that could be of interest to chemists. In this process, I was encouraged by visitors like David Bradley of the Sciencebase Science Blog and psi*psi of Carbon-Based Curiosities. Being included in the Chemical Blogspace network of chemistry blogs also increased my blogging temperature, even when my lab work is really heavy.

In what way is online culture important for the global chemistry community?

Initially, there were only static web pages online which could do nothing to form a global community of anything. But with the forms of new online communication tools that followed (e.g., search engines, BBS forums, social bookmarking/networks, blogs, wikis) the interaction between net users has 'deepened'.

Chemists have for some time communicated globally as publishers digitize their journals and make them searchable online. But, chemists have really been waiting for something like blogs and social networks to complement formal communication methods. Blogs and social networks open the channels for these aspects: failures, protocols, and inspirations. A few days ago an American PhD student wrote to me and asked me about lactide polymerization. He knew I had experience in this polymerization because of my blog.

How do you think being a chemist in China differs from working in "The West"?

I don't know much about how chemistry is done in the West, but one difference I am sure of is that we have a lot less money for our research. China pours the world's second largest bucket of money into science according to the statistics, but one should consider the fact that no NMR machines, no TEM, SEM, AFM, or other instruments are manufactured in China, so our supervisors are at the mercy of imports and taxes.

Additionally, we have a weak chemical industry which cannot provide qualified reagents. Delicate syntheses also requires imported reagents. We are blighted by poor quality glassware and leaky gloveboxes. There are lots of suicides among PhD chemists. Those that persist are often only working for the degree certificate and the chance for a slightly higher salary rather than science itself. Things are getting better, not worse, so I've chosen to stay in China for my PhD rather than follow the brain drain.

What more can chemists around the world do to work towards a global chemical community?

First it is important for chemists and governments to recognize the benefits of international collaborations. Currently, with limited communication, there is little incentive for a scientist in the US to collaborate with a Chinese scientist. More communication and understanding between chemists from different countries is needed and the growing online chemistry community could improve opportunities. Chinese chemists actively participating in online communities are still rare, however.

Governments might be concerned with knowledge or secrets being leaked, but I believe the advantages of collaboration can far outweigh the shortcomings which can be overcome by carefully designed policies and contracts. I guess the Chinese government should welcome global collaboration because we are currently weaker and have much to learn from others. There is still much to change.