Pei­dong Yang, chemist in Cal­i­for­nia, wins MacArthur ‘ge­nius grant’

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By HEZI JIANG in New York hez­i­jiang@chi­nadai­

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.”

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