Research Chemist, USDA Southern Regional Research Center
H. N. Cheng obtained his B.S. from UCLA and his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In his R&D work, he has been active in developing and promoting green polymer chemistry as a platform to produce eco-friendly and sustainable products. As part of this work, he has been involved with the use of biobased materials, biocatalysis, green processing, and green methodology. He has also done a lot of work on polymerization theory and polymer NMR. He is currently a Research Chemist at USDA Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. Prior to 2009, he was Senior Research Fellow at Hercules Incorporated (now Ashland, Inc.) in Wilmington, Delaware, where he held various R&D and managerial positions. He has authored or co-authored over 270 papers and 26 patent publications. He has organized 37 symposia at national meetings since 2000 and edited 21 books.
He was selected as a Fellow of the American Chemical Society (ACS) (2009), a Fellow of the ACS Polymer Chemistry Division (2010), and a Fellow of the ACS Agricultural and Food Chemistry Division (2018). He was the recipient of ACS Volunteer Service Award (2016), Tillmanns-Skolnick Award for Outstanding Service from the ACS Delaware Section (2006), Distinguished Service (2005) and Special Service (2015) Awards from ACS Polymer Chemistry Division, and ACS Delaware Section Award for research excellence (1994).
You worked 30 years at Hercules Incorporated (now Ashland, Inc.), and then joined the USDA. What were the biggest adjustments for you?
I have enjoyed my jobs at Hercules and at USDA. Both have been interesting and rewarding. To me, the transition has been easy, and no real adjustments have been necessary. I have always considered myself adaptable and flexible. The key is to do a very good job anywhere, irrespective of job content, personnel, and circumstances. It has also been stimulating to learn new things.
I would like to mention here that companies might differ quite a bit depending on their size, nature of the business, management style, workplace culture, and many other factors. Likewise, one government lab may be very different from another. Thus, my experiences may be different from those of another person under a different set of circumstances.
What are the relative pros and cons presented by a career in industry vs. one working for a government lab?
I need to speak in generalities here because (as I noted above), there are quite a bit of variations within each employment sector.
1. Benefits of a government job:
a. Job security. Although we occasionally experience furloughs in the government, overall a government job is relatively stable. The government is rarely out of business and it needs people to do the work.
b. Benefits. A job with the U.S. government usually comes with a health insurance plan, a pension plan, and other benefits. The benefits for a company are highly variable. Some companies have excellent benefits and some less so.
c. Work-life balance. It has often been cited that work-life balance can be more easily achieved with a government job. (This may be true in general. In my case, I am a workaholic, and I work very hard whether I am in industry or in a government lab.)
d. Emphasis on publications. In my current research job at USDA, I am expected to publish a certain number of papers a year. I consider this a benefit because this is an easily quantifiable criterion for performance evaluation. The requirement for publications also forces the scientists to keep up with the latest advances in their fields, to continue to innovate, and to come up with new knowledge.
2. Benefits of an industrial job:
a. Higher salaries. According to ACS surveys, an industrial chemist makes more money than a government scientist does. This may be true on the average, but for a specific chemist, the salary can vary and depends on a number of factors, such as company size, nature of job, performance rating, years of service, and other factors.
b. Greater career flexibilities. A company often has a wide array of career options, including research, management, sales, marketing, manufacturing, business development, and various support functions. Thus, if an employee wants to do something different, he or she can look for transfer opportunities within the company.
c. Profit orientation. A company’s primary goal is to make a profit. Thus, an industrial scientist needs to optimize his or her efforts towards this goal. It is then very satisfying to a scientist when his or her new product is commercialized and profitable.
d. Manageable bureaucracy. A certain amount of bureaucracy is needed in every organization. An efficient company usually recognizes excessive bureaucracy and paperwork and takes corrective actions quickly.
How did your parents influence your leadership style?
My father had a long and successful career in education, having served as college president, professor, education officer, head of a school system, and high school principal. In many ways, he was my role model. He taught me to establish goals, value the people I work with, and lead by example.
My mother was a lawyer by training, and she taught at college and secondary school levels for many years. From both of them, I learned the importance of friendship and work ethic.
What non-technical skills were most instrumental to your career success while in industry?
I would say the two key skills are communication and organization. As we know, product development is often a team effort, and the ability to communicate (verbal and written) is essential. Similarly, communication (including interpersonal skills) is helpful when one interacts with one’s superiors, coworkers, subordinates, customers, and other stakeholders. Organizational skills are useful for obvious reasons. They are particularly important for someone in a leadership position.
You work 70 hours a week, and have been doing so for at least three decades. What drives you to do so?
When I entered industry after graduate school, I started to work hard on the tasks that the company gave me to do. After a couple of years, I realized that whereas I was doing a great job on the immediate tasks given to me by the company, I was losing touch with cutting-edge research. I got worried that if I continued in the same path, after 10 years there might be a knowledge and skills gap between me and new students coming out of graduate school.
Therefore, I decided to work two shifts. During the day (eight or more hours a day), I worked hard on the company’s problems. At night and on weekends, I put in 30 more hours reading the literature, doing my own research, and publishing papers on my own. I managed to publish an average of about three papers a year all through my industrial years.
Of course, I was very careful not to publish any proprietary information, and I kept a low profile on my publications. I had several wonderful bosses over the years, and I appreciated their tolerance of my work habits.
While in school, what should chemistry and chemical engineering students, who are targeting a position in industry, do to increase their chances for career success?
As noted earlier, communication and organization skills are critical to industrial success. A student should keep these in mind and try to improve their skills in these areas.
In addition, I notice that in industry often the better performers are the “generalized specialist.” By this, I mean someone who is good in his or her specialty (e.g., organic synthesis, nanocomposites, electrochemistry, mass spectrometry, or whatever), but who has a broad knowledge (or awareness) about other branches of science and engineering. Being a specialist means that he or she can make the materials needed for a project or solve specific problems.
The facility with other knowledge or skills permits the chemist to appreciate the bigger picture, to manage people more effectively, and to communicate more easily with colleagues with different backgrounds. These skills distinguish that person and increase his or her promotion potential. Moreover, companies sometimes change their focus and terminate projects. A good knowledge of other fields can enable a scientist to be flexible and transfer to another lab that may have an opening.
You can ask one question of any scientist who ever lived. What is the question? And who would you pose it to?
I would like to meet Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726). Although he was a great physicist, he actually spent at least 30 years working with alchemy, trying to convert base metals into gold. In fact, 10% of his written output dealt with alchemy. I would ask him whether he ever considered what he was trying to do was impossible. Better yet, if he considered chemistry to be more difficult than physics.
What advice do you have for mid-career chemists working in industry to optimize their chances for advancement?
As we know, there are many mid-career chemists in industry. Some are perhaps content to stay where they are. Some may be interested in advancing to a higher grade, and some may be ambitious and really want to get ahead. Depending on the person, I would provide one or more of the following suggestions:
1. Good advice for anyone is to excel in what you do. This may require extra effort on your part or taking courses to upgrade your skills. If you become really good in your job, your performance will improve, and your contributions will be noticed by your superiors.
2. Try to do a self-assessment of your knowledge, skills, and abilities. What are your strengths and weaknesses? How can you take advantage of your strengths and avoid (or remedy) your weaknesses?
3. Be active in ACS. There are many resources available at ACS that you may find useful. You can also meet (and network with) many people. These meetings may energize you, and your new friends may help you professionally and boost your morale and confidence. If you volunteer your time in ACS, you may also improve your communication and organizational skills.
4. After all your efforts, if you are still not advancing, perhaps you should consider changing jobs. It has been said humorously that movers and shakers are the people who move to places where they can shake. Again, in this case, you can take advantage of ACS resources and the networks you have established through your ACS involvements, as you seek other career options.
Is it inevitable that North American and European scientific preeminence will shift to Asia? What are the primary implications of this transition, were it to occur?
As we know, scientific work requires funding, and increased funding usually leads to greater R&D activities for a given country. In this regard, the U.S. is still the world’s leader in R&D spending. In 2017, the U.S. spent $543 billion in R&D, accounting for 28% of global R&D. However, several Asian countries have recognized the importance of R&D to their economy and have increased their investments.
The U.S. has the option of increasing its support to R&D in order to maintain its competitiveness, and indeed, I believe this is something for which ACS needs to advocate.
If the U.S. does not adequately respond to the increased worldwide R&D activities, then the scientific efforts in other countries may indeed become increasingly preeminent. The U.S. may still be the first among equals but has to share more spotlight with others.
From the viewpoint of science, the increasing global R&D activities should enhance scientific progress. From an individual scientist’s point of view, a collaborative effort (domestic or international) may be beneficial as a way to increase productivity, permit the availability of equipment or talent needed for the project, and bring different perspectives to the problem in question.
Of course, just as in industrial research, caution is needed to safeguard proprietary information, respect for any sensitivity relating to the data, and compliance with laws that may apply to information transfer, funding, and personal conduct.
You have served as an ACS volunteer in a very large number of roles. What has been the most rewarding to-date?
If I can only choose one, I would consider as most rewarding my role in enhancing global collaboration of chemistry. In 2000-2006 when I served on ACS Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs (CEPA), my colleagues and I realized that globalization was having a huge impact on the practice of chemistry and (in particular) jobs and careers of chemists and chemical engineers.
As Chair of CEPA Task Force on Globalization Issues (2004-2005) and Chair of CEPA (2006), my colleagues and I made several major recommendations concerning globalization from both ACS and individual member’s viewpoints. In 2013-2015, I served as Chair of ACS International Activities Committee. My colleagues and I were able to expand the ACS global activities, including the expansion of international chapters, global collaborations, and various outreach and inter-societal activities.
For students aiming for a career in industry, how would you advise them on whether to pursue a Ph.D.?
I would say that this depends on the career interest of the student. If a student is interested in doing research, obviously a Ph.D. is the way to go. However, if a student has other career interests, he or she can pursue them, building on his or her chemistry background. The industry needs a lot of talent in different fields. I have known people who went to law school after getting their B.S. degree and became a patent attorney, or to business school and eventually became the director of a business.
I would like to add a note here about sales. Some of us may have a negative image of a salesperson, but if a person is interested in getting ahead to become a vice president or even company president, the quickest way is to get into sales. If we look at any company, we can do many things, like management, R&D, manufacturing, regulatory compliance – all these activities cost money and do not directly generate profit for the company. Only when a sale is conducted between the company and a customer, then money flows into the company. That’s why sales is the most critical function for any company.
When 2020 arrives, you will be the ACS President-elect. What, in your view, are the 2-3 biggest challenges confronting the American Chemical Society?
I believe the biggest challenges facing ACS include:
1. Growth. For several years now, ACS membership has been static or slowly declining. A challenge is to attract new members, to retain current members, and to get more of them involved. Moreover, we need to pay attention to chemists working in industry and to changing demographics in the future workplace.
2. Changes. We live in a time of great changes - in technology, in publications, and in meetings. How the chemists of the future will get their scientific information and how ACS can continue to play a major role in the process is a key challenge.
3. Public understanding of chemistry. Despite continuing efforts, there is still the problem of inadequate science literacy among the public.
I know ACS is very much aware of these issues. I look forward to working with governance and staff in efforts to address these issues.
As an avid student of history, you will be happy to learn that ACS has invented a time machine. When you’re ready, we’ll send you back to any time in history you would like. Where would you like to go? And at what point in history?
From the scientific point of view, I would like to be transported back to early 1900s in Europe. At that time, classical physics was well established, and quantum physics and relativity were emerging.
In chemistry, the dye industry had become successful in Germany and then spread to the U.S. The chemical industry grew quickly from these developments. It was an exciting time to be a scientist, where opportunities for creativity and innovation abounded and competition was relatively sparse. For a scientist, this was a good situation to be in.
What I Learned with H. N. Cheng has been edited for length and clarity.