Reimagining what is possible: in both his scientific pursuits and his personal life, Song Lin is doing just that. Growing up in Tianjin, China, Lin was fascinated by the bizarre chemical reactions he saw in cartoons as a child. Now, Lin is using electrochemistry to power new chemical transformations. Alby J. Joseph spoke with Lin about what inspired his interest in electrochemistry and about what it means to be an out gay chemist in academia. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hometown: Tianjin, China
Education: BS, Peking University, 2008; PhD, Harvard University, 2013
Current position: Associate professor, Cornell University
LGBTQ+ identity: Gay man
Favorite molecule: TEMPO (tetramethylpiperidine-1-oxyl): it is a stable radical, how fascinating! It has also led to many interesting discoveries in my lab’s research.
Mentor: My first research adviser was Zhangjie Shi when I was an undergraduate at Peking University. His passion for chemistry, his perseverance, and his unwavering support to his students are things that I will strive to emulate in my own career.
Alby J. Joseph: Tell me about your research at Cornell University.
Song Lin: As an organic chemist, a couple of things really excite me: one, how molecules come together to form new bonds in different reactions, and two, how we can utilize these reactions to make complex molecules, like natural products or pharmaceuticals. In our research, we develop new organic reaction methodologies. In other words, we invent new chemical reactions that we hope will help people make pharmaceuticals faster and more efficiently. A special feature of our research program is the use of electrochemistry. It’s relatively new. Instead of using chemical oxidants and reductants to power reactions, we insert electrodes and use current to drive chemical reactions. Once you replace chemical reagents with electricity, you potentially make the reaction greener and more sustainable. Pharmaceutical companies are very interested in this. One aspect that fascinates me is whether we can achieve new chemical transformations with electricity that we could not do using traditional chemical approaches.
AJJ: That sounds exciting! Is that thought what brought you to the field of organic electrochemistry?
SL: Yes! I was trained as an organic chemist in graduate school. In my postdoc, I joined an inorganic chemistry lab where I happened to learn electrochemistry. We were doing electrochemical energy conversion, which had nothing to do with synthesis. When I started my independent career, I thought about merging the expertise I had from my grad school and postdoc training by asking if we could use electrochemistry to promote chemical synthesis.
AJJ: Now looking back, what first inspired your interest in chemistry? Were there any mentors that were especially impactful?
SL: I was fortunate to have some great mentors, even since elementary school. I was always a curious child, so simple experiments, like dripping hydrochloric acid onto limestone and seeing it bubble, were really fascinating to me. I think the biggest influence, or when I decided to be a chemist, was in high school. I had this phenomenal chemistry teacher. It was a life-changing experience to learn chemistry from him; he was so passionate, not only about teaching but also about chemistry itself. My undergraduate adviser also influenced my life a lot. He was super passionate about chemistry and encouraged all his students to become professors.
AJJ: What was it like navigating an academic career as a gay chemist? How has this experience intersected with your identity as a Chinese immigrant?
SL: Throughout my career, I had the fortune of being in very open environments: Boston as a grad student, the Bay Area as a postdoc, and now Ithaca, New York, as a professor. I have also had supportive colleagues, including my supervisors and lab mates. I haven’t had many bad experiences, but there were still challenges. I came out in my last year of grad school. It was very hard to figure out my own identity while dealing with the stresses of grad school. Also, being a gay chemist, you confront coming out whenever you enter a new environment. Psychologically, it is a burden to always think about how to come out, how your friends will react, or how it could influence your career. I guess that is compounded by the fact that I’m a Chinese immigrant. I think that Chinese society is a little bit less receptive to the idea of being gay. Before I accepted the invitation to do this interview, I was a little worried about how friends and colleagues in China would perceive this. I decided that I should be truthful to myself and to the community. Representation is so important. I think if it weren’t for the success of people like Tehshik Yoon and Carolyn Bertozzi, who are out and loud, I probably would’ve hesitated more before pursuing this career.
AJJ: Thank you for sharing that. I can relate to those feelings about coming out. Is there any advice you would give to young LGBTQ+ scientists?
SL: I see how the coming out process can still be daunting for young scientists. I think the obstacles I faced were more mental. It was helpful for me to talk to people that were supportive. I think my advice is to find someone you trust. I had a friend that I came out to first, and she helped me in coming out to other people in the lab. I would say coming out is entirely your decision. Don’t feel pressure to come out to anyone or not. In an ideal world, everyone should be out, and everyone should be accepting, but because of the challenges, I think we have to take care of ourselves and know what makes us happy.
AJJ: How has your identity shaped your goals as a professor?
SL: We talk about all the challenges, but I think being a gay person comes with an opportunity and responsibility to be a role model for the next generation. It’s an opportunity that you don’t have if you’re not part of the community. That responsibility feels very important to me. Obviously, I love the science. I want to focus all my energy on the science, but at the same time, I want to advocate for my students, many of whom come from immigrant or underrepresented backgrounds.
I want to learn more about you as well. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
AJJ: I’m a first-year chemistry student in Lingyin Li’s group at Stanford University. We study this pathway in the innate immune system that is important for cancer and autoimmune disease. I really enjoy thinking about the mechanisms underlying the pathway, how it’s regulated at a molecular level, and what that means therapeutically. I hope to have an impact on human health.
SL: Have you thought about what you want to do?
AJJ: I would love to be a professor. My passion for chemistry and chemical biology, and science research in general, was inspired by the teachers, professors, and research mentors I had. I like the idea of being in that role one day.
Alby J. Joseph
Hometown: Westbury, New York
Education: BS, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2021
Current position: PhD candidate, chemical biology, Stanford University, Lingyin Li’s lab
LGBTQ+ identity Gay man
Favorite molecule: My favorite molecule is 2’3’-cyclic GMP-AMP (cGAMP). This cyclic dinucleotide activates the innate immune STING (stimulator of interferon genes) pathway to trigger an anticancer immune response. The role of this molecule has led to discoveries that may transform cancer immunotherapy.
Impactful book: The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, by Ben Barres. It was a very impactful book for me.
One last question: What keeps you motivated in your day to day—both in and out of the lab?
SL: Just thinking about chemistry ideas and how to make projects work. When I get stressed out, I like to strip down the other aspects of my job and focus on what I love—the chemistry. Talking to students about ideas and getting their feedback is also really rewarding. Outside the lab, my family is what keeps me going. Knowing that every day, no matter how the day went, I can come home to my husband and our two dogs is especially nice.