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H. N. Cheng, a champion for chemistry

The 2021 ACS president wants to harness collaboration to strengthen the chemistry enterprise

by Sophie Rovner, special to C&EN
January 3, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 1


This is a photo of H. N. Cheng.
Credit: Julia Cheng
Cheng at home in New Orleans.

H. N. Cheng is the 2021 American Chemical Society president. He recently spoke with C&EN about his career in chemistry and his plans for ACS during a pandemic. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What initially sparked your interest in chemistry?

While taking a chemistry course in high school, I worked with chemicals, learned to identify selected elements, and used different types of glassware. I found the experience exciting. When I went to college, I did well in chemistry courses. I loved the idea of discovery, so I decided to major in chemistry, even though I was told as an undergraduate that I could make more money by going to medical school. I had a good experience in graduate school as well. I’ve continued to enjoy the work and the people I work with.

What led you to run for ACS president-elect?

I have been a member since 1982. I was attracted to ACS because of its wide range of member services and its efforts in outreach and publicizing chemistry to the public. I learned a lot through my involvement with ACS—not only about scientific matters but also about leadership, the importance of communicating and interacting with others, and making a difference. I thought of volunteering as a public service, as a way to give back to the profession.

In the first few years after becoming a member, I attended as many local section meetings as I could and gave presentations at national meetings. In the ’90s, several key people at Hercules, where I worked at that time, got me involved with the Delaware Section and the Division of Polymer Chemistry (POLY). I became active in the Delaware Section and later the Louisiana Section, serving as section chair and in other roles. With respect to technical divisions, I started organizing symposia for POLY and continued doing so later for the Divisions of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Professional Relations, and Cellulose and Renewable Materials. I also carried out other assignments for POLY. I was elected councilor in 2000, and from then on, I was involved in national activities, serving on committees and task forces. A while ago, people started asking me to run for higher office—and here we are.

How did you spend your year as president-elect? How did the pandemic shape your experience?

Initially I thought I would be talking to members, visiting local sections, discussing and formulating my plans with colleagues at national meetings, and representing ACS at conferences. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown that began in March, the year turned out to be much different. Nevertheless, my motto has always been to do the best job I can, irrespective of the circumstances.

Before the pandemic lockdown, I went to the ACS Leadership Institute in January and the ACS Safety Summit in February. In March, the ACS national meeting was canceled because of COVID-19, and after that, I wasn’t able to travel at all, so I turned to virtual meetings. I gave feature talks (all virtual) at the Central Texas, Louisiana, Delaware, and Southern Nevada Local Sections. I gave invited talks at the Applied Polymer Technology Extension Consortium Symposium, Sacramento State, and Chinese American Chemical Society. I also attended many other virtual events: the Council of Scientific Society Presidents meetings, Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference, and the annual meetings of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

Of course, I attended ACS’s virtual national meeting in August. I gave three scientific talks at the meeting and helped organize a symposium titled “Sustainable Green Chemistry: Bench to Market” and another titled “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance of Materials.” I was very pleased to speak at several ACS committee meetings. In addition, I attended the virtual Rocky Mountain Regional Meeting in November and was impressed with the quality of the talks and how well that meeting was run.

Moreover, I had the opportunity to give two talks at the virtual ACS on Campus event in Germany in October and the opening plenary speech for the Brazil Environment and Energy Symposium in November. I participated in international chapter regional calls organized by ACS staff and the International Activities Committee, which were wonderful opportunities for communicating and interacting with our international colleagues.

I had the privilege of working with ACS Member Services staff, Jim Skinner from the Division of Small Chemical Businesses, and Diane Schmidt from the Division of Business Development and Management to produce two ACS webinars on entrepreneurship training, which were held in October and December. This is an important area of focus because a lot of innovation these days originates from entrepreneurs and start-ups. We plan to have more webinars this year. Other activities related to my presidential role are discussed separately below.

Meet H. N. Cheng

Credit: Courtesy of H. N. Cheng
H. N. Cheng with his family. From left: son, David; Cheng; wife, Julia; and daughter, Jennifer.

Credit: Courtesy of H. N. Cheng

H. N. Cheng with his family. From left: son, David; Cheng; wife, Julia; and daughter, Jennifer.


H. N. Cheng is a research chemist at the Southern Regional Research Center of the US Department of Agriculture in New Orleans. He was born in China and grew up in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. He earned a BS in chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1969 and a PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1974.

After working at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey, as a visiting member of technical staff, Cheng joined GAF in Wayne, New Jersey, in 1976 as a senior research chemist in the analytical chemistry department. Three years later, he switched to Hercules (now part of Ashland) in Wilmington, Delaware, where he held various R&D and managerial positions, including in new business development, polymer chemistry, analytical chemistry, nutrition, biocatalysis, and pulp and paper technology. He ultimately reached the rank of senior research fellow, the highest scientific position at the company at the time. Along the way, he also taught two courses and served on two PhD committees at the University of Delaware.

At the USDA since 2009, he works to convert commodity agricultural materials into useful, higher-value products. His broader interest is to develop and promote green polymer chemistry as a platform to make ecofriendly and sustainable materials. He has also worked on polymerization theory and polymer nuclear magnetic resonance.

Thus far, he has authored or coauthored 275 papers and 26 patent publications and has edited 21 books. He was elected ACS fellow (2009), a fellow of the ACS Polymer Chemistry Division (2010), and a fellow of the ACS Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division (2018). He received the ACS Volunteer Service Award (2016) and several other awards.

A member of ACS for 39 years, Cheng has served in many of its local, divisional, and national offices, including as a member or associate of the Committee on Committees; Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs; Committee on Public Relations and Communications; Committee on Nomenclature, Terminology, and Symbols; Committee on International Activities; Board-Presidential Task Force on Multidisciplinarity; and Presidential Task Force on “Vision 2025: Helping ACS Members Thrive in the Global Chemistry Enterprise.” He has also been a councilor for the Polymer Chemistry Division and the Delaware Section and chair of the Delaware and Louisiana Local Sections.

Cheng, who describes himself as a workaholic, regularly puts in 70 h weeks. In his downtime, he teaches Sunday school, writes poetry, reads history, and tends a small garden.

Cheng and his wife, Julia—a corporate financial specialist, currently retired—have two grown children: Jennifer, who works at a major accounting firm as a certified public accountant, and David, who leads a biotech start-up.

What else would you like to accomplish during your time as president?

For my presidential year, my platform is “Growth, Collaboration, and Advocacy.” The major areas of focus include sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship, international collaboration, and advocacy. Many members are familiar with these topics, and I would like to highlight them to emphasize their importance to chemistry.

How to grow a well-established discipline like chemistry? Although some areas in chemistry have become mature, there are many emerging and exciting areas. Moreover, a lot of scientific advances are being made at the interfaces between chemistry and other disciplines, and this trend will likely provide further opportunities in the future. Chemistry can contribute to the solution of difficult global problems, such as food production, clean air and water, population control, development of new energy sources, climate regulation, and prevention and monitoring of present and future pandemics. To this end, I am collaborating with the Committee on Science to produce a presidential symposium in 2021 titled “New Frontiers and Opportunities.” I am also planning to speak on this topic at national meetings and local sections in order to solicit input and stimulate discussions.

Sustainability and green chemistry are welcome developments that can address many current needs, such as hunger, health, energy, industry innovation and infrastructure, responsible production and consumption, and climate action. I wrote a C&EN Comment in February of 2020 and edited a two-volume ACS book on green polymer chemistry and sustainability. With the help of the ACS staff of the Office of Scientific Advancement, I have already given several talks on sustainability and will continue to do so this year. In collaboration with the Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division, I will organize a presidential symposium titled “Sustainability: Advances and Applications” for the ACS Spring 2021 meeting. For the ACS Fall 2022 meeting, I’m planning a symposium titled “Sustainability and Green Polymer Chemistry.”

Innovation is critical to the growth of a scientific enterprise, and entrepreneurship is important in fostering innovation. In addition, enhancing collaboration between industry, academia, and government labs will help promote innovation and facilitate translation of discovery to products. I noted earlier the planning of new ACS webinars on entrepreneurship training. For the ACS Spring 2021 meeting, the Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry will organize a presidential event titled “Industrial/Academic Dialogue.” For the ACS Fall 2021 meeting, a presidential symposium is being planned titled “Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Collaborations.” It will include separate sessions on collaborations among chemists in academia, industry, and government. The goal is to encourage industrial engagement, entrepreneurship, and collaborations among academic, industrial, and government scientists.

International collaboration can help innovation through increased speed of R&D, decreased cost, access to a bigger talent pool, enhanced responsiveness to local markets and needs, and shared risks. I plan to participate in more virtual international meetings and continue the virtual interactions with our international chapters. If the pandemic situation improves, I hope to visit international chapters and international student chapters and attend meetings in person. I also welcome opportunities to work with our international sister societies.

Finally, advocacy is important because we need the support of the federal government and the public to maintain and expand research funding. Advocacy will also help shape public policies that strengthen the scientific community and benefit innovation. I applaud the ACS External Affairs and Communications staff for their excellent efforts, and I will certainly help when needed. I am also working with ACS staff and the Younger Chemists Committee to initiate an advocacy workshop for younger chemists and students to be offered during the first quarter of 2021.

Charles Darwin is presumed to have said, “Those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” I also believe that collaboration is essential in a complex and rapidly changing world. I look forward to collaborating with ACS staff, governance, and membership at large to achieve these objectives.

What has surprised you in this role?

ACS has so many good things going on, it’s amazing even for a longtime volunteer like me, who has been very involved. I truly appreciate the talent, dedication, and diligence of our members; through their efforts, they advance our profession. The students are so enthusiastic, which is wonderful for chemistry, since the future belongs to them. I am impressed by the ACS staff for their ability, hard work, and professionalism. They keep ACS operating despite the pandemic and exhibit a can-do attitude. ACS has excellent ongoing programs, and I think we are doing well as an organization.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect are core values and goals for ACS. How might they figure during your tenure in the presidential succession?

I’m very much in favor of diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect (DEIR). The demographics in the US will change in the next 50 years. For ACS to succeed today and in the future, I believe we need to take actions to realize our core value of diversity and boost our efforts to recruit and retain diverse members and volunteers for ACS. Moreover, studies have shown that diversity and inclusion in the workplace improve organizational performance, stimulate innovation and problem solving, and enhance collaboration. In our increasingly global environment, diversity also promotes cultural understanding and cooperation. Thus, DEIR is important to ACS: it is the right thing for ACS to do as a member organization and a smart thing for ACS to do as a business. I applaud the ongoing DEIR programs at ACS and strongly support them.

You have worked in several positions in both industry and government. What enabled you to pivot to those different jobs? How do the sectors differ?

I worked for four different organizations after completing my education (see sidebar). My longest tenure was at Hercules, where I worked for 30 years before moving to the US Department of Agriculture. During my career, I changed assignments roughly every 7 years. I called that the 7-year itch. I moved from one field to another and one type of job to another, sometimes not by choice. As a result of these changes, I quickly learned to become adaptable and flexible—something I had to do to thrive. The key is to do a very good job anywhere—irrespective of job content, personnel, and circumstances—and to keep a positive attitude.


Both industry and government are excellent career choices; they’re just different. Let me explain. I need to speak in generalities here because the chemical industry is rather heterogeneous, and different companies have different modes of operations. Likewise, one government lab may operate differently from another.

In industry, salaries are usually higher than in government. And some people like the profit orientation of industry. It’s very satisfying for scientists to see their R&D efforts reach the marketplace. There are also more career options in industry, such as research, management, marketing, sales, manufacturing, regulatory affairs, and business development. There are more opportunities to transfer to other departments, get involved in different projects, and learn new areas of chemistry.

A job in a government lab tends to be somewhat more secure and stable. An employee tends to stay in the same job or department for a longer time. Employment benefits are good. In some jobs (like mine), a scientist is expected to work with stakeholders and publish a certain number of papers a year, and this is helpful in focusing research toward the end results. No matter where we work, we can learn from the job and from colleagues. In fact, it is useful once in a while to move to a different field or a different assignment because it provides new perspectives and opportunities. It’s also fun to learn a new field. Sometimes we can use the ideas or techniques in one field and apply them to a different field. And we have the increased opportunity to network and collaborate with more people.

How can readers contact you?

I look forward to collaborating with readers to benefit chemistry and enhance its growth. They can reach me at

Sophie Rovner is a senior science writer at ACS.


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