Posted: February 27, 2008
As you walk through the chemistry building, you will see Wei Chen's picture alongside that of James Prescott Joule, whose nineteenth-century work greatly influenced the fields of physics and chemistry. It seems an appropriate pairing, as Wei has already claimed worldwide recognition for research that crosses the boundaries of organic, physical, and inorganic chemistry.
Wei's parents were both university professors, and her dream was to become a professor, too. She prepared well. Wei received her B.A. in chemistry from a certain rival institution, Smith College, a master of science in chemistry from Yale, and her Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts. For the next two years Wei was a senior polymer scientist at W. L. Gore and Associates, but her "goal of teaching at a liberal arts college that unites the education of undergraduate students and the development of an active research program" came true when she took a pay cut and became an assistant professor at Mount Holyoke in 1999.
In the relatively short time that Wei has been at the College, she has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments. The students who paired Wei Chen's picture with Joule's noted, "Both known for their incredible energy." Wei has already mentored 17 undergraduate research students, five of whom presented their work at scientific meetings. She has garnered financial support for her work from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation; she has published 11 papers, 10 with student coauthors. In 2007, Wei was granted a U.S. patent for "Surface Modification of Solid Phase Objects by Poly(vinyl alcohol)." She has received invitations to speak in France, Thailand, China, and Japan, in addition to numerous invitations across the U.S., including twice at the prestigious Gordon conferences.
So what is the nature of this work that has interested so many? When you touch the surface of a material with your finger, you are feeling molecules. The properties that you sense (rough or smooth, sticky or waxy, shiny or dull) reflect the molecular landscape; these are the topological features (imperceptible to the human eye) with dimensions on the scale of a nanometer (one thousandth of the width of a human hair). Wei's research aims to build bridges between our direct perceptions of surfaces (the "bulk" or "macroscopic" properties) and our understanding of the molecular details present at the nanoscale. Elegantly weaving together methods from synthetic chemistry, physical chemistry, and material science, Wei has developed a creative and integrative approach to this problem, and her keen insight has generated a broad range of innovations to the field. Most importantly, her work seeks not only to identify correlations between bulk and nanoscopic properties (how does molecular "roughness" affect the "wettability" of surfaces) but also to design and build new molecular architectures that will produce unique physical properties. By combining a breadth and depth of knowledge of the field, she is able to develop new models for describing chemical and physical properties, then draw upon these insights to design and synthesize new materials. Applications of her work are far-reaching, including materials for medical implants with surfaces optimized for biocompatibility.
In addition to being a fine research scientist, Wei is described in glowing terms by many students. Adjectives such as awesome, intelligent, enthusiastic, fantastic, inspirational, and brilliant are everywhere in her evaluations. Students find her kind and supportive; they appreciate that she loves her subject and very much consider Wei a role model to emulate. She holds all of her students to high standards, and they often meet or exceed them.
Indeed, Wei wears many hats with grace: an innovative scholar, a creative architect of molecular designs, an inspiring mentor, and a respected leader among her peers. She is clearly an outstanding polymer scientist and a most deserving recipient of the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship.