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Meet the industrial researcher developing sustainable packaging technologies

Dow’s Yifan Dong shares how she was able to apply her graduate biopolymer research to a career in plastic packaging

Yifan Dong, Associate Research Scientist, Dow Chemical
Yifan Dong, Associate Research Scientist, Dow Chemical

Yifan Dong is an Associate Research Scientist in Polyethylene Product R&D of Dow Chemical’s Packaging & Specialty Plastics Business located in Freeport, Texas. She obtained her Bachelor of Science from Beijing Institute of Technology in 2013 and her PhD in Chemistry from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2017. As a subject matter expert of low-density polyethylene (LDPE), she leads new product innovations and supports the global application developments in the Extrusion Coating & Lamination and Food & Specialty Packaging (F&SP) areas.

Yifan was the 2019 Co-Chair of the New Texas Researcher Organization (NTRO), the 2020 Chair of the ACS Brazosport Local Section, and a symposia organizer for ACS National Meetings, including Co-Chair of the 2017 Graduate Student Symposium Planning Committee (GSSPC) and organizer of the 2020 ACS Award for Team Innovation Symposium. Yifan lives in Missouri City, Texas with her husband Yunbo Hou, another Hokie engineer, and their dog Phoebe. In her leisure time, she enjoys walking with Phoebe, taking ballet classes, and traveling. 

What experience first led to your interest in chemistry?

Like many of my chemist colleagues, I fell in love with chemistry through a great science teacher from middle school. Growing up I was also a big fan of math and physics, but it was the experimental science and hands-on lab operations that truly made me pursue career in chemistry.

My undergrad research experience with Prof. Yuping Dong from the Beijing Institute of Technology really opened the doors of polymer science for me. This experience also led to my polysaccharide research with Prof. Kevin Edgar at Virginia Tech, designing and modifying natural biopolymers for oral drug delivery, where I could apply synthetic skills and material science to investigate the biopolymer structure-property relationship for impactful biomedical applications.

Tell us about your current role with Dow. What is the best part of the job?

My current role as a researcher in the Polyethylene Product R&D of Dow is quite different from my graduate school training as a polysaccharide chemist in the Edgar lab. I was initially hired into Dow’s Core R&D organization and experienced my first job transition after 6-months in my original group, as a result of the Dow/DuPont merger and spinoff.

Although plastics and biopolymers may seem to be on two ends of the spectrum, I was able to apply my cellulose knowledge with polyethylene material science to develop technologies in the paper packaging area, addressing imminent sustainable and recyclable packaging needs.

My favorite part of this job is working with global technical experts and cross-functional teams for product and application development, from benchtop product designs to fabrication, packaging, customer validations and commercialization. There are so many knowledgeable people within Dow who have taught me so much. I am always inspired by peoples’ knowledge depth and technical curiosity, and I am very grateful that I can build my own project teams to feed high quality R&D projects into our innovation pipeline and drive differentiated products forward. 

How was your experience as an ACS Local Section Chair in a pandemic?  

2020 was certainly a challenging year for ACS and many other organizations. To me, communication and close engagement with our Local Section leadership team became extremely crucial. Partnering with our Executive Committee and Subcommittee Chairs, we implemented the Local Section strategic goals through monthly board meetings and sub-teams follow ups to enhance our programs and events, including brainstorming preparation, cross-media promotion and post-mortem debriefs, targeting continuous outreach and diverse communication channels to support and engage Local Section members.

Before the pandemic locked down the world, we kicked off the IUPAC Global Women’s Breakfast at multiple locations by collaborating with our industrial partner, Dow’s Employee Resource Group, Women’s Inclusion Network (WIN), while ensuring our routine programs such as our Annual Banquet and Chemistry Olympiad continued.

During the pandemic, we conducted a critical membership survey to understand our members’ needs and how ACS Brazosport can help. With the survey, we were able to pivot our programs towards the needs of return to lab safety and professional training through distribution of ACS Daily Webinars and a Career Readiness Workshop for local community colleagues.

We also hosted the virtual National Chemistry Week Seminar, “Sticking with Chemistry,” and customized the “at-home” Crystal Growth Competition to support home schooling and virtual education. As a result, we have grown participation in all 2020 events by over 20%, were awarded three ACS grants (including the Innovative Project Grant, Member Engaging Through Technology, and Diversity, Inclusion & Respect grant), and have been nominated as a finalist for five 2021 ChemLuminary Awards. 

How has the pandemic changed the way you perform your job? What aspects do you think are here to stay?

The pandemic has changed both my job and personal life significantly. My husband and I bought our first house a week before the pandemic lockdown, and I started working at home until today. Despite occasional technical issues like loss of power or VPN connection, I am truly impressed by how Dow and our leadership teams have managed business-critical projects and COVID-19 safety through rotational lab schedule, resource prioritization, and a data driven, three-phase return to work safety procedure. I am also very grateful for our technicians and warehouse teams who have been continuously going to work to support our sample submission, experimental testing, and data collection.

I admit that there are also at least two benefits from the pandemic and working at home: for one, I was able to have a lot more video conferences with my colleagues from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. After working with them for several years, I was finally able to connect faces to names/ voices, which is wonderful. And for two, we also adopted our fur baby Phoebe and she has now become our biggest source of joy every day. These virtual connections and daily dog walks are certainly here to stay!

Is there a piece of advice you could share from your own experience that would help other scientists just starting their careers?

As a researcher from industrial R&D, I realize that the corporate working environment is distinctly different from all the years we spent in school, and that I have grown much more in the past four years at Dow than all my school years combined. For younger scientists looking for opportunities in academia or industry, or starting off their career, I would advise them to stay inclusive about different perspectives and stay passionate about science.

Any post-graduation project will likely require both technical and commercial feasibility, so there will always be limitations and restraints to any fundamental research. Treat disagreements not as barriers, but as opportunities to understand the differences of opinions and build consensus across the team to accomplish the goals. Bringing any research or technology to the next level of broader impact (either grant awarding or product commercialization) requires a very broad scope of both technical and non-technical expertise, and success can only come from collaboration, communication, and partnership. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2021 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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