Peidong Yang, chemist in California, wins MacArthur ‘genius grant’
Peidong Yang, a 44-yearold Chinese-American chemist at the University of California-Berkeley, was named one of 24 winners of the 2015 MacArthur Foundation fellowships on Tuesday. Often called “genius grants,” the awards come with a stipend of $625,000 and no strings attached.
“It was totally a big surprise,” Yang told the San Jose Mercury News. “I had no clue who nominated me or when.”
The Chicago-based foundation does not accept applications for its award. Candidates are selected by nominators serving anonymously, and the winners have no idea until they get a phone call. With no strings attached, the award is meant to give recipients the freedom to pursue their passions.
This year’s winners — 15 men and nine women — include a stem cell biologist, a tap dancer, an economist, a magazine journalist and the writer and star of the Broadway musical hit Hamilton. They range in age from 33 to 72.
Yang is an inorganic chemist in the research field of semiconductor nanowires, which is “very much like human hair, but it’s 100 times or 1,000 times thinner,” he explained in a video made by the MacArthur Foundation.
In the past decade, Yang and his team have created a synthetic leaf of semiconducting nano wires and bacteria. The “leaf”, which looks like a nail-sized iron sheet, uses the same ingredients as photosynthesis — water, sunlight and carbon dioxide — to produce liquid fuels, and releases oxygen into the air.
The foundation said “Yang’s advances in the science of nano materials are opening new horizons for tackling the global challenge of clean, renewable energy sources.”
“It is a nice recognition of our work on semiconductor nanowires for the past 16 years,’’ Yang wrote to China Daily in an e-mail. “Meantime, it is also a big encouragement for our ongoing exciting research on artificial photosynthesis.”
Born and raised in Suzhou, China, Yang earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Science and Technology in Anhui province, and moved to the US in 1993 to pursue his PhD at Harvard University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Barbara before joining the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.
Yang is also a senior faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and he holds the S. K. and Angela Chan Distinguished Chair in Energy at Berkeley, which was established in 2010 by two Chinese donors, Shu Kai Chan and Angela Chan.
He lives in Berkeley with his physicist wife, Mei Wang, and their 11-year-old daughter.
Asked what inspired him to go into the scientific world, Yang told China Daily: “I am always very much interested in exploring and discovering new things. Designing new materials with powerful functionality is an intellectually challenging and creative process, which I enjoy very much.”
“One day I want to see my basic research fundamentally change the way people live in the future,” Yang said in the beginning of the MacArthur video.
Asked how he will spend the $625,000 award that is paid in equal quarterly installments over the five years, he told the Mercury News: “I seriously don’t know what to do, because I had no clue who nominated me or when I’ll probably put it into my research and use it to train students.”
I want to see my basic research ... change the way people live.”