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Editorial: Career lessons

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
September 25, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 34


I was very impressed by the quality of the work presented during C&EN’s Talented 12 symposium Sept 19–21. The class of 2022 shone brightly and left the audience feeling inspired.

Keynote speaker Zhenan Bao referred to this T12 class as “superstars of chemistry” who inspired her with their stories and the difficulties they overcame to be where they are today. I could not agree more.

I was also stirred by Bao’s journey.

Originally from China, Bao recalls first getting interested in science during field trips with her parents. They were professors at Nanjing University and encouraged her thirst for discovery by asking such questions as, “If you throw a popsicle in the lake, does it float?”

She came to the US in 1990 to attend the University of Illinois Chicago. It was humbling for me to hear how, in the beginning, her command of English was not great and she didn’t know the names of the flasks and beakers she used in her experiments—though she quickly learned them.

After receiving masters and doctorate degrees at the University of Chicago, she worked at Bell Labs—which she described as “a dream place to do research”—for 8 years. Bao returned to academia in 2004 and joined the faculty at Stanford University, where she is now.

Much of her work is at the interface of different disciplines of science and engineering, and it was interesting to hear how Bao approaches multidisciplinarity. When branching into a new arena, she typically identifies a postdoc who has some experience and can act as her guide to learning the language of the field. This person becomes a kind of translator between Zhenan and her collaborators.

Bao shared the main lessons she has learned in her career:

Have a purpose. We should always be mindful about why we want to do something like start a new company or take up a leadership position, but she cautions that having a purpose is different from a goal or target. A target is what one wishes to achieve; purpose is why that goal matters. In Bao’s case, her purpose is ultimately to benefit society by learning through research and service.

Know your priority. For Bao, it’s “people, people, people.” Publishing one more paper or patent will not make a lot of difference to your career when you look back, but you’ll always remember the people who helped you and worked with you along the way.

Follow your heart. There are many decisions to make, and it’s difficult to balance all parameters and to predict what’s to come. Trust your instinct.

Do the best you can. “No regrets,” Bao says. Not every decision is a good one, but it is the best decision you could make based on the information you had and the situation you were in.

Make a decision and move on. Bao’s father advised her that when we make a choice we might view some things as a loss or disadvantage, but those could be temporary or even a future blessing.

Reward yourself. Working hard is important, she says, but “sometimes we need to take time off this lifelong journey.”

Some of these lessons have become more important during the COVID-19 crisis. Bao says “the pandemic made me think that it is even more important to take on challenges that benefit society.” It also reminded her how important people are and that we should aspire to be better and more appreciative of one another.

Bao is not one for second-guessing herself. “There have been setbacks and unexpected challenges,” she says, but “my thinking is that I cannot change what has already happened, but I can change what is coming in the future and think about what I can do next.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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