PEIDONG YANG HAS A VISION. Tapped a few years ago to help run a fledgling university near China’s bustling metropolis of Shanghai, the chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, didn’t want to re-create another run-of-the-mill institution of higher learning. Yang, who was elected as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2016, wanted to shake up traditional distinctions in subject matter.
Yang is well placed to develop such new approaches. Yang won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2015 for his work on semiconductor nanowires and using them to convert and store energy from sunlight. The applications for these nanowires stretch across scientific disciplines. So, when ShanghaiTech University president Jiang Mianheng approached Yang five years ago about designing the school of physical science and technology, Yang was prepared for the kind of academic cooperation that the university wanted to champion.
At the school of physical science and technology, traditional departments don’t exist. The school recruits researchers from the fields of chemistry, physics, materials science, biology, and electrical and chemical engineering. As the first university in China to implement a comprehensive tenure-track system and an emphasis on graduate work, ShanghaiTech Univeristy aims to nurture research. The school of physical science and technology, which has nearly 1,200 undergraduate students and 1,500 graduate students, is one of five schools that make up the campus. The university has 464 faculty members so far. Housed in Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park near Shanghai, the university is located near some of China’s national research facilities.
Credit: American Chemical Society
Yang (left) and Terasaki (right) are reimagining ShanghaiTech’s school of physical science and technology.
The prime location fuels interdisciplinary research. “ShanghaiTech is surrounded by world-class shared research facilities,” says Bolin Lin, who is developing a theoretical framework to guide carbon dioxide abatement and developing technologies that can make chemical use of carbon dioxide. Lin collaborates with researchers at the National Synchrotron Radiation Facility, one of the institutions within walking distance of the university.
The school of physical science and technology has invested in its own resources as well, including a nanofabrication lab, a classical materials and chemical analytical center, and the recently opened Center for High-Resolution Electron Microscopy, which will focus on high-resolution observation and measurement in space, time, and momentum as well as incorporating some spectral resolution work.
Osamu Terasaki, who came to lead the center after helping to set up similar instruments at Stockholm University, says his priority is to make sure the equipment is available for research at every level, from that of students to that of advanced researchers. He also wants to steer research toward electron beam-sensitive materials that aren’t easy to study. The center will examine the relationship between the structure and the properties of materials, like zeolites, which are often used as commercial catalysts.
Chao Zhong is leading a program at the school to develop innovations like bio-inspired underwater adhesives using synthetic biology tools. Zhong’s work benefits from the kind of boundary-crossing work that the university is promoting. “I do believe this kind of interdisciplinary work can inspire other researchers to look beyond existing approaches,” he says.
With collaboration in mind, Yang, who also is an associate editor for the interdisciplinary Journal of the American Chemical Society, organized the school around four disciplines. Still eschewing the traditional subject-matter divisions, he decided to establish four interdisciplinary directions: condensed matter physics and photon science, materials and physical biology, systems materials, and big-science instrumentation. “The research coming out of these totally interdisciplinary research divisions will eventually lead to the new technology that will solve real energy and environmental problems in China and also at the global level,” Yang says.