Chemistry professor enjoys a week to remember

4/8/2008 - By: John Trent

For Liming Zhang, every day when he is at the University, whether it is teaching or conducting research in his lab in the Department of Chemistry, is a good day.

“I have a short memory,” the 36-year-old native of China says with a smile. “So each day is always a good day to me.”

Recently, however, Zhang had a week that even he admits was “great.”

In mid-March, in the space of about three or four days, Zhang: 1) learned that he was one of four nationwide recipients of the 2008 Amgen Young Investigator’s Award (Amgen is a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company in Thousand Oaks, Calif.); 2) learned that he was recipient of a $500,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, a prestigious, highly competitive award that is a defining national milestone in the career of young scientists from throughout the country; 3) successfully presented his third-year seminar to the department’s faculty, another milestone for third-year assistant professors who are on a tenure track.

“I think that everything is basically (in a career is) building one thing upon another,” Zhang said of his busy and bountiful week. “You publish a paper, that’s a good week, and you need to remember that without publishing, without doing the work, none of this would be possible. Having good students is always fortunate, and I’ve had good students … they’ve been willing to work hard.

“And without my co-workers, my fellow faculty members in chemistry, none of this would be possible. So all of this builds, one thing upon the other.”

Vincent Catalano, chairman of the Department of Chemistry, says Zhang’s talents are many, and that Zhang “is a great role model.”

“The thing that really strikes you about Liming is how incredibly hard he works, and how he demands the same from his students,” Catalano says, noting that although it is clear Zhang is the instructor, his approach with students is highly collaborative. “He works side-by-side with them in the lab, and together they accomplish great things. His enthusiasm and dedication show through in everything he does.”

The Amgen award is just one example, Catalano says.

“Receiving the Amgen award gives Liming the national and international exposure that he deserves,” Catalano says. “He conducts research in an incredibly competitive field, and only the most promising young scientists are selected for this award. It demonstrates that both Liming and the UNR Department of Chemistry can compete on the international stage.”

Zhang is involved in a relatively new, cutting-edge field of research that looks at common commodities such as gold or platinum and, using their complexes as catalysts, attempts to create a new bond formation process. These novel chemical transformations have great potential for the future development of pharmaceutical products, and in creating a new generation of pharmaceuticals that would be waste-free and more environmentally friendly.

“Hopefully we can put the process close to the ideal situation,” Zhang says, “so that we can save the environment and save energy as well as make certain drugs more readily available. At the center of this is developing ways to make these compounds more efficient.”

Zhang says that being a member of an accomplished faculty in chemistry has also helped his development as a young scientist. His NSF CAREER Award comes after intense competition with early career researchers from throughout the country – less than 10 percent of the applicants are actually chosen for the award.

Although the CAREER Award is highly competitive, the Department of Chemistry has a notable track record of faculty members who have captured the award. In addition to Zhang, the department’s other winners include: Catalano in 1996 (the first Chemistry professor in Nevada in any field to receive the honor); Suk-Wah Tam-Chang, 1999; Sean M. Casey, 2001; Benjamin King, 2005; Brian Frost, 2007.

Says Catalano: “I wish the chemistry department could take more credit for our record in receiving this award, but really the credit goes to the individuals. We try to hire the best people, give them the resources they need to be successful, and then try to stay out of their way.”

Speaking of staying out of the way, Zhang says that perhaps his greatest challenge is to stay front and center with his students. He clearly has a strong affection for the students, both graduate and undergraduate, who work in his two labs.

“Sometimes my students don’t like me to go to the lab,” he says, smiling again. “So I go to the lab all the time. I really enjoy my time with them in the lab.”

Then he pauses. Every day in the lab, of course, is a good day to Liming Zhang. And why not? It incorporates almost all of the elements of a job that he holds dear: interesting research, the exchange of knowledge and ideas with a group of students and colleagues, and always promises the discovery of more knowledge … yet another building block for a man who clearly enjoys the process as much as the end result.

“Sitting here all the time,” he says, pointing to his office on the third floor of the Chemistry Building, “doesn’t feel that good.” He chuckles lightly. “I kind of feel like I’m not doing anything important if I sit here too long. I’d much rather be in the lab.”


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