Rong Wang

    An Interview with Professor Wang

    Professor Rong WangDr. Rong Wang is an Associate Professor of Chemistry in the Department of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Chicago. She teaches physical chemistry and runs a biophysical chemistry research group. Apart from her research and teaching commitments, Professor Wang is also the Associate Chair of Chemistry in the Department.

    In person, Professor Wang exudes a quiet confidence and an approachable demeanor. Her students describe her as their staunchest ally who supports them through the ups and downs of academic work and beyond. Her research work, which focuses on the development of novel methods and materials that have promising tissue engineering and biomedical applications, has engendered 54 publications and thriving collaborations with several major institutions in the Chicago area namely, Argonne National Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital and Rush University Medical Center.

    In this interview, she takes us along on her journey as a chemist, her research work, motivations and advice to women chemists.

    What is your academic background? Is there a specific milestone/event that got you interested in chemistry?

    Initially, I wanted to follow my father, who is a physics professor and I actually majored in physics for my undergraduate degree in Jilin University, China. During the course of my senior year project on the piezo-electric properties of azobenzene derivatives, I developed an interest in exploring the chemical compounds and their physical properties. So, I chose to do my doctoral research on the photoelectric properties of the azobenzene derivatives at Tokyo University, Japan. I then moved to the US and did my postdoctoral work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I performed nanoscale analysis of self-assembled materials and developed them for applications in biosensing. This was my first exposure to the biological side which laid the foundation for my current work.

    What kind of tools and techniques do you use routinely for your research?

    We have a very inter-disciplinary research approach to developing novel nanomaterials and nanotechnology tools for various applications. We routinely work with cells, tissues, nanomaterials and employ a variety of tools and techniques such as atomic force microscopy, surface engineering using bio-conjugation chemistry, molecular manipulation using photochemistry, and cell biology techniques.

    What is your group currently working on?

    Professor Rong WangOne of our recent achievements is a method for precise quantification of cell surface proteins and performing on-site analysis of gene expression in individual cells and within intact tissues. These studies have application in drug discovery and validation. Another major thrust in our lab is understanding the structure-function relationship of collagen in clinical tissues. In collaboration with surgeons in UIC Hospital and Rush University Medical Center, we studied the nanoscale changes in collagen’s structure and elasticity in pelvic floor connective tissues of women with the aim of devising better diagnostic methods of connective tissue disorders. Third major area is the conjugation of collagen with other nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes, spider silk, etc. These collagen-based nanocomposite materials have interesting structural and physical properties that can induce the generation of neurons from human stem cells and thus, have applications in neural injury treatments.

    What aspect of research (brainstorming ideas, collaboration, student mentoring, etc) excites you the most?

    Coming up with new ideas and seeing them come to fruition is pretty exciting. We study phenomena that occur at the nanoscale. So, in that sense, it is pretty much basic science. But, we see our work impacting the real world through our collaborations with local hospitals, which is quite remarkable. On the other hand, although the work itself is exciting, what I find more fulfilling is mentoring students and being part of their transformation into confident and independent thinkers.

    Academic research can get stressful. How do you manage the frustrations/challenges?

    Things in academia can be frustrating and overwhelming on a daily basis. Apart from being organized, reminding oneself that the stressful moments will pass and being patient is key. Personally, listening to music is a great stress-buster.

    What efforts do you make to achieve work-life balance?

    Managing time is essential and it comes with experience and proactive planning. After I leave the lab at 7 PM, I spend as much time as possible with my son. Starting at 10:30 pm or so after he goes to bed, I would be back to my work when it is needed. Whenever time allows, I love participating in his activities, at school or after school. I travel with family to other countries. It is a great way to relax, learn about new cultures and keep your mind fresh.

    Do you have any words of wisdom or a favorite motto for young women in science?

    I see a lot of smart, young women around me. I think it is important that they see themselves as smart and be confident, no matter what. For young scientists, choosing a research area that truly excites you is absolutely crucial because that excitement will temper some of the struggles of academic research.

    Dr. Wang has received funding from NIH, NSF, DOE, NASA and private foundations. She served the grant Program Review Panels for NIH, DOE, ACS Petroleum Research Fund, Alzheimer Disease Foundation, among others. She is a frequent speaker and served as section chair and Scientific Advisory Board in national and international meetings. Recently, she was awarded the Visiting Scholarship funded by Japan Society for Promotion of Science and DAAD Visiting Faculty Scholarship in Germany. Dr. Wang also served as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Langmuir (ACS Publications). She currently serves as a member of the Editorial Board for Advances in Materials Science and Engineering (Hindawi Publishing Corp). In addition, she has significantly contributed to the establishment of the International Center for Sensor Science and Engineering (ICSSE) and the Center for Diabetes Research and Policy at IIT.

    By Indumathi Sridharan