Oral-History:Li-Chyong Chen

About Li-Chyong Chen

Li-Chyong Chen is a Research Fellow in the Center for Condensed Matter Sciences (CCMS) at National Taiwan University (NTU). In 1981, she received her B.S. in Physics from NTU, and in 1989 was awared a Ph. D. in Applied Physics from Harvard University. She then joined the Material Research Center at General Electric Corporate Research and Development and returned to Taiwan in 1994 as an Associate Research Fellow and was promoted to her current position in 2000. She is now leading the Advanced Materials Laboratory in the CCMS at NTU.

In this interview, Chen discusses her education, at NTU and Harvard, and her position at General Electric, and concludes with Chen's reflections on gender roles and observations on trends in STEM education.

About the Interview

LI-CHYONG CHEN: An Interview Conducted by Kelsey Irvin, December 29, 2015

Interview # 764 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Li-Chyong Chen, an oral history conducted in 2015 by Kelsey Irvin, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Li-Chyong Chen

INTERVIEWER: Kelsey Irvin

DATE: 29 December 2015

PLACE: Teleconference

Introduction

Irvin:

Dr. Chen, I would like to welcome you to your oral history interview. We hope to learn the significant events of your life to best understand how you got where you are today. If you feel uncomfortable or unable to answer any questions at any time, we can move on to any other question keeping in mind that you will be able to edit the transcript and add or delete anything you would like. So if you would like, we may go ahead and begin. And we can start by talking about your early life and education.

Early Life and Education

Irvin:

So just to start off, could you please state your full name and date and place of birth?

Chen:

Li-Chyong Chen. My birthday is March 12, 1959, and I was born in Taipei City, Taiwan.

Irvin:

And did you grow up there?

Chen:

Yes. I grew up in Taipei and stayed up until I moved to the United States.

Irvin:

Okay. Could you tell me a little bit generally about your childhood?

Chen:

My family is quite big, and I grew up in the suburb area of Taipei. At that time, it was still just farmland, where people grew rice. My father is actually a rice store businessman, and my mother is a housewife. I am the youngest one of a big family – eight brothers and sisters. I am the youngest one, and I have four sisters and three brothers. Yes, I received all my early education in the Taipei public school system, and completed my undergraduate study in the department of Physics at National Taiwan University. After receiving the bachelor’s degree, I remained in the same department at NTU as a full-time teaching assistant for two more years.

Irvin:

When you were younger, were you interested in technology?

Chen:

I think I had a very general interest in a lot of different fields, but mainly arts and sciences. I am not interested in politics, law, or business.

Irvin:

Okay. So how did you become interested in physics, engineering, and kind of the field you are in now?

Chen:

Actually, among all the physical sciences – physics, chemistry, and mathematics – I think I like physics the best, and in comparison of physical science and life science, I also like physical science best. In biology, basically I was scared of cutting the frog we had in high school biology class. That freaked me out. So, I stayed with physical science, and physics is among all the physical sciences that I like the best. But, on the other hand, as I mentioned, I am also interested in arts, and I like painting. I had a fantasy at that time of being civil engineer so that I could draw pictures. Therefore, I actually chose civil engineering as my first priority at that time, and physics as the second priority. However, I ended up with physics, because you know at that time we also had the entrance exam. I just missed by 0.25 points. But anyway, I stayed with physics ever since. I love physics anyway.

Irvin:

So did you have a role model who inspired your technical interests?

Chen:

My role models at that young age were just my sisters and brothers. Up until high school, my elder brother, the second eldest brother, was chemistry major as his first choice. He was so much in love with chemistry, so he was a chemist. Then one of my elder sisters was also very in love with physics. Both of them always said physics is beautiful and so more or less, they were my role models.

Irvin:

And you already said your parents’ occupations. Your mother was a stay at home mom. Can you tell me again what your father did?

Chen:

My father is a rice store businessman. He got a high school education. And my mother got an elementary school education.

Irvin:

Did your family encourage your technological and engineering interests, and interest in physics?

Chen:

I guess I’m lucky to be the youngest one. My father may have put some pressure on my elder brothers and sisters, but he completely gave me freedom and the other younger ones to just choose whatever we like. He doesn’t care anymore. My mother always let us pick what we want.

Irvin:

What led you to National Taiwan University for your bachelor’s degree?

Chen:

Actually, in Taiwan, even up until now, there is an entrance exam. But in my time, it was all just done by one entrance exam. I was in Taipei’s first high school, which was the most competitive of female public high schools, even till now. Obviously, there was a lot of peer pressure. In such an environment, I also learned a lot. Before the entrance exam, we needed to submit a list of the preferred departments in order. As I mentioned, I picked NTU civil engineering as my first priority, and physics the second, and so forth. Then, at the entrance examination center, they administered the exam and then told us, in descending order of our scores, which priority we got. About 30% of the students in high school can get admitted to one of the departments in a university based on this nationwide college entrance exam. I chose civil engineering as my first priority, but because I missed just 0.25 points; I ended up with physics. Afterwards, I stayed with physics and never changed my mind.

Irvin:

When you were completing your bachelor’s degree, what were your favorite courses?

Chen:

Modern physics and solid-state physics.

Irvin:

What did you study in addition to physics?

Chen:

Actually, in our time, the required courses were already a lot. So we were almost 100% occupied by the required courses and had limited time to choose other courses. I took Japanese as an elective course for two years, and I also sat in some other literature courses just for fun. But then, in addition to physics and literature courses, extracurricular activities are also an important place for learning in university. I had also spent a lot of time there, too. I consider that one kind of study.

Irvin:

So what led you to choose Harvard University for your doctoral education after that?

Chen:

The process for applying to American universities is probably about the same as you do in the States. We had to finish GRE and the foreign language TOEFL first. For the university student especially, at National Taiwan University, going abroad at that time, especially in America, is probably the top priority among others. In the physics department in particular, because America to us is so advanced in science and technology as compared to Taiwan, almost all my classmates would automatically apply. In such an environment, I had no hesitation at all. Just go abroad. I applied to about 10 universities, and I got admitted to three very good universities, Harvard, Cornell, and Yale, and among these three, I chose Harvard. I was lucky.

Irvin:

At the time, did you study physics or applied physics?

Chen:

Applied physics. Actually, mostly I chose applied physics. For instance, Harvard and Yale, they all have applied physics so I just applied to applied physics. If the schools had only physics, then I did physics.

Irvin:

Did you have a particular graduate advisor?

Chen:

My graduate advisor was Frans Spaepen. In our Division, we were assigned a first year advisor after we registered. Frans Spaepen was my first year advisor, and I did like the area of expertise in his group. His group emphasized material physics. I was also very impressed by his warm and caring personality. Although at that time my interest was broad, I could have joined a different group, but then because the group culture, I would say, was also an important consideration to me. Frans is really a great advisor. He is well liked by the students, and then he is also the only one within the Division that had more than one female student in the group. This is also very important. All the other groups had no females or just one female student, and that was a little intimidating to me at that time.

Irvin:

Would you mind describing your Ph.D. research topic?

Chen:

OK. Much of my research focus was on the transformation between amorphous, quasicrystal, and microcrystalline materials. I was fascinated by quasicrystal. Let me just briefly describe it. Aperiodic tilings were reported in sixties and seventies, mainly mathematically. Decades after, some materials exhibiting quasiperiodic structures were discovered under electron microscope. The first experimental observation was reported in 1982, just before I started my graduate study. Because of this new class of material revolutionized scientists’ understanding of crystallography, my advisor suggested that I look into it, and I was brave enough to take it. I learned to prepare this type of materials in form of thin films and also studied their structures in detail by utilizing x-ray diffraction and electron microscopy. The most intriguing scientific issue was that, if the diffraction patterns of the materials exhibit broad halos, we could not tell whether it was microcrystalline or amorphous. Nowadays, if the microcrystal has a very small grain size, we call it a nanocrystal. Nanoscaled materials usually give diffraction patterns with broad peaks that could not be differentiated unambiguously from those of amorphous. My study actually showed that if I use a calorimeter, I can differentiate unambiguously the amorphous and microcrystalline materials by the way they evolve in the enthalpy they are releasing. The transformation between amorphous and crystal involves nucleation and growth, which will lead to a first-order phase change peak. In contrast, if it is a microcrystal they will not go through the nucleation and growth, but rather, just go by the process of grain growth, which will lead to monotonic reduction in the interfacial enthalpy only. Based on the calorimetric study, I have shown for the first time how one can differentiate amorphous and microcrystalline unambiguously. I am very happy about this work because it has actually quite important fundamental aspects. This study was published in Nature and it has also been mentioned in some textbooks in materials science.

Irvin:

In addition to your graduate advisor, were there other teachers who mentored you?

Chen:

Yes. Are you talking about at Harvard or prior to that time?

Irvin:

Either. At Harvard or at National Taiwan University.

Chen:

Let me start from junior high school and below. Over that period of time, I think there was not a particular mentor in science, although, I have benefited from some language teachers in many aspects. But to me, the most important learning is the appreciation of the value of life. During NTU time, also I would say, not particularly in science, but rather the valuable learning is related to the inspiring story, often told by some professors. Through the story telling, I learned the making of a scientist and the societal responsibility of a scientist and even the dilemma facing scientists when there are conflicts of interest of the nation or any other interest party with their own consciousness, for instance, the dilemma of the invention of atomic bomb. This kind of story inspired me a lot, mainly occurring at the NTU time. At Harvard, Frans was really a model of a true scientist. He always showed us how we should search for the most direct route for the basis underlying physics of a new problem. Also, I think he showed how the first-rank research and writing should be clear and to the point. I think he is really a wonderful mentor who had the magic to turn confusion to a solid conclusion. So I consider him a great mentor. I’d also like to mention one thing that also meant a lot to me. He is very patient with our slow-paced research. Also, he is very tolerant of our hardship. I should mention that when I was in graduate study, I had been hospitalized quite a number of times due to my physical conditions. I suffered a tumor and also got pregnant, even after the surgery. I was in the hospital quite a few times. But then, Frans always still encouraged me and treated me so wonderfully during the time that I was pregnant. Let me just share a memorable moment here. I was working on an X-ray experiment and once he saw me still working on experiments with my pregnancy, he told me, “You don’t have to work so hard.” He told me that it is important that you probably have one or two babies in your life, and experiments sometimes can wait, and you have to take care of yourself better. So this is my advisor, but of course I still worked very hard. Another important professor in our group is David Turnbull. David Turnbull is kind of one of the gods in materials science. He is the first recipient of the Japan Prize. The Japan Prize is a younger prize compared to Nobel Prize, but is considered the Nobel Prize in materials science. Anyway, David Turnbull is another person who also inspired me a lot. He had an incredible knowledge, and I had enjoyed his inspirational conversation and advice. He compellingly showed me how enthusiastic a scientist can be, even at an age approaching 70’s. Let me just mention an example. He was about to retire when I joined Harvard, so he did not take any more students. He had the last student to finish in two or three years. But even after his so-called official retirement, he still came to the lab every day. He told us that he had been longing for a nucleation and growth experiment for over ten years, but just no time. Now that he had retired, he would not have so many obligations like before and could spend more time in the lab. I was kind of shocked. He was curious about what we did, and he just wanted to chat and share his experience. Through such kinds of experiences, I really enjoy the research environment with a lot of enthusiasm. He is a great mind, and if I asked a simple question, more often than not, he would give me a more profound answer than I had anticipated. He would lead me to some journals from 1960 or 1950 and he would say that for the question you asked, this paper would help you. Frans and Dave, these two I truly consider great mentors in my life.

Irvin:

What part of your education was most beneficial to your career?

Chen:

The Harvard study, of course.

Irvin:

And what types of activities were you involved in during these years at Harvard that motivated your interest in STEM fields?

Chen:

Well, I think we were already in the environment of research, problem-solving, talking to each other, exchanging information...all of these. Of course, the division is relevant to the STEM fields, so I don’t consider that you need extra, different type of activity at that time.

Irvin:

Are there any moments in your younger life that stands out as life-changing or critical moments in your career?

Chen:

This I don’t quite know. Life changing…because I think I decided quite early on, so there is no discontinuity so to speak.

Irvin:

So now that we have talked about your early life and your education, we can move on to your career.

Career

Irvin:

What led you to join the Materials Research Center at General Electric Corporate Research and Development following receiving your PhD at Harvard University?

Chen:

At the time when I was about to graduate, most of our seniors went to the R&D centers in big companies. A few probably went to National Labs, and another few probably went to other universities for post doctorates, or maybe stay at Harvard for another term. At the time I was about to graduate, I did ask my advisor, “What is the most appropriate way to develop my career?” Actually, I didn’t really have a fixed mind about where to go. Also, at that time, one of the professors had asked me to stay at Harvard for postdoctoral study, which was kind of an offer already before my graduation. So I asked Frans if I should stay at Harvard or go somewhere else, or should I apply to a company job. He told me – this is also a moment when I felt touched – he told me, “Of course you can stay at Harvard, and if I’m selfish you can even stay with me. You are excellent, and you can do well. But, you should look at your career this way. You probably want to explore broadly. Check your potential and check your interests better. Harvard you shouldn’t consider as the only option or the best option, and you should explore as much as you can.” So memorable a moment, I was deeply touched by his unselfish statement. He mentioned a few names in big companies. He told me, “Well, these guys are doing quite well, and I think it is quite a fruitful environment.” So I submitted ten application letters to ten companies including Bell Labs, IBM, and GE. In many of these labs, Frans does have good connections. I think that helped, and I got interviews at five places, [and] ended with three offers. GE’s offer was the best among the three, so I went to GE.

Irvin:

Okay, and what was the interview and application process like? Did you have to give a job talk on your Ph.D. research or presentation on your research during your interview?

Chen:

Yes. I interviewed at five places in person, and GE I visited twice. On the interview, the formal process includes the presentation and also individual discussion sessions with quite a number of scientists there.

Irvin:

And while you were at that job, what types of projects did you work on, and what was your role in any particular project?

Chen:

This is also a very interesting part in my life. When I joined GE in 1989, although I didn’t work on any high TC superconductor before, that was one of the main focuses in the R&D center, and therefore, I was advised to join the high TC superconductor group. You probably know that high TC came out around 1988. Around that period of time it was so hot a topic. So, GE also devoted some efforts afterwards. However, my involvement in this field was very short-lived, because when I joined GE, I was already pregnant for the second time. So I started slowly, but then after I had my baby delivered and returned from my maternity leave, I was told that the project will be down-scaled because after a few years of efforts, GE’s managerial assessment of this field is that it is still a long-shot to get this new class of materials commercialized, therefore, they streamed-down the high TC project. I had to look for new projects after my maternity leave. I should also explain that in the Corporate Research and Development Center at GE, we were asked to spend 70% of our time to research projects relevant to GE’s business, while keeping 30% time to our own choice of study. We could do whatever we thought was important for that 30% of our time. The relevance study has to have some future connection, if not immediate, with the company product. At the time, GE had 13 different business units, including lighting, aircraft engine, and so on. My manager actually gave me a wonderful topic and direction to go. At that time, our company started to receive a lot of fines and penalties in paying the government for the production unit that involved utilizing manufacturing of tungsten with thorium. Thorium is a radioactive element, and when it was in phase of application, it doesn’t matter. You use it in the car, you use it in the high-density discharge lamps, but when used in a product, it is only a very small amount, no more than a couple of percent in tungsten. That is not going to cause any trouble with our health, but in the manufacturing plant, you are talking about kilograms. You are talking about big, big chunks of materials to deal with. So, that is a problem, and GE wasn’t doing good enough, so they kept receiving big tickets for this environmental problem. The Corporate Research and Development Center desperately needed to take care of this problem and challenge we scientists to figure out how to solve it. So, my manager suggested that I explored new material for the lighting business to replace the thorium that was added to tungsten. The material has to be vibration-resistant just like thorium. It also has to emit high-intensity electrons. Given these general guidelines, it’s my job to figure it out. To do research without any predecessor, and develop it into potential product, as an inexperienced new staff scientist, I think that was really challenging. Nevertheless, I deeply liked the topic because it did give me a sense of responsibility for the society. Sometimes people probably view the so-called relevance study as less interesting, but I felt so grateful to conduct this research topic that is not only very interesting and fascinating to me, but also making my potential contribution so meaningful and valuable.

Irvin:

Yeah. What led you to choose to leave your job at GE?

Chen:

Okay. Actually, let me see…before I move on to that, I would also like to say a little bit about GE and the job. Our job functions include not only to set up the lab and perform the lab work in the R&D center, but also to go to the business unit from time to time and help them to solve short-term to mid-term problems, and then conduct more mid-term to long-term research at the center. I had many trips to the business unit, and also the stimulating interactions with engineers on-site, which was an eye-opening experience for me. I really liked the job because I could learn how it works in real-life manufacturing and how these affect the planet,. It was a really fruitful life and I could also have stayed there for life, because my offer was a permanent job. So I didn’t have any need to leave GE. Though I didn’t need to, but the reason I left was mainly because of my husband. Although he also got a job at GE, he very much wanted to return to Taiwan. We also knew a lot of friends at that time, some of them chose to stay in the United States, but many of them also considered going back to Taiwan or somewhere in Asia. I think that was a moment in our time that a lot of the Asian-born – not only just Taiwanese, but Japanese, maybe Korean as well, maybe Singaporean as well – we had already accumulated 20-30 years of time that a large population of our generation are working in the U.S. and having a good life. That could be our life too, but my husband had a strong feeling of returning home, so he kept saying that we should go home when we were young. Otherwise, it is difficult to move when our kids grow up, or we get too settled, too complacent or comfortable in the U.S. So he insisted that we needed to go home. This is why I left.

Irvin:

When you went back, you when back to the National Taiwan University, correct?

Chen:

Yes.

Irvin:

Did your husband work there as well?

Chen:

My husband actually returned earlier. He returned slightly over a year earlier than me. He got an offer [at] Academia Sinica. Academia Sinica has quite a few institutes, and his institute was located inside NTU campus. So, of course some job at NTU or the neighboring university in Taipei would be appropriate. But at that time, it was very competitive. As I mentioned just a moment ago, a large wave of home-returners was there. Actually, when I tried to approach the Chairman of the Physics department – my alma mater department – the Chairman told me that he got more than 200 C.V.’s and among these, many were established ones from IBM, from Bell Labs, from good universities. As I was relatively inexperienced, he told me I would not have any chance to compete with them. So I should give up the hope for the Physics department. [The] Materials Science department had the same situation. Disappointedly I had no chance in the regular department. If I were free to choose any place to work, I might as well have chosen the Science Park in Hsinchu, which was quite successful for technology transfer. That made prosperity in microelectronic industry in Taiwan, and we still benefit from this Science Park till date. In this incubation park, the biggest R&D organization is Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). It has six-thousand workers. ITRI also gave me an offer to be a project leader, which was attractive, partly due to the connection to my job at GE, because I had to lead a team to develop a new type of lighting. Though the topic and the position were very attractive, but after all, Hsinchu is 100km away from Taipei. With two kids and most of my family in Taipei, I gave up the job at Hsinchu. I really had to work hard to find a job in NTU, and luckily, we had the newly established Center for Condensed Matter Sciences (CCMS). At that time, no one was actually interested in CCMS, because for all the well-established persons, most of them felt that, in NTU, how CCMS operates is unclear; its budget is not secured and the fact that it is a research center and not a department, you also don’t have automatic source of students to work with you. You have to figure out how to get the manpower. Under this kind of situation, being so new, even without a building yet, I was given the offer and I was sort of brave to take it no matter what, because it is a job in NTU. Anyways, I mentioned this history, because sometimes when I look back, a lot of opportunities, a lot of times I was lucky to get the position that I had put in high-priority. But sometimes, I also got the less attractive position viewed at that time, but then it turned out to be the best. I was fortunate to work in an organization when it was just started, so I could contribute a lot more at CCMS; in contrary, if I had gone to the Physics department, which is so well established, I might have felt so small a potato. I wouldn’t have had the chance to contribute more. Now, I am very happy with my opportunity. Yeah.

Irvin:

What kind of work do you do now at the Advanced Materials Lab at Center for Condensed Matter Sciences at National Taiwan University?

Chen:

I have worked at CCMS for over 20 years, starting with a very small group (3-5 students) and now I have a very big group, a 40-person group, including almost 10 post-docs, 5-6 research assistants, 12-15 Ph.D. students, about 10-12 Master students and even some undergraduate students. With such a big group, I can actually be brave to explore a lot of research topics. I mainly focus on material discovery, design, and application[s]. The central theme for the application right now and the biggest effort is on the energy issues. I cover also a wide range of energy forms, from hydrogen base, which includes fuel cells and generation of hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuels, supercapacitors, lithium-ion batteries, to solar cells, and some thermoelectrics. Seemingly quite a broad range of topic, my main goal is really to develop new materials or architectures of materials in multi-scale. Namely, the material does not have to be entirely new, but if you can build a new architecture that enhances the property that we are targeting, we can achieve high-efficiency solar cells or high-efficiency hydrogen generation, or high-efficiency fuel cells, and so on and so forth. With the resources and manpower that I have now, I enjoy the variety of things my group can do, especially the energy and environment inspired research. It is very satisfying, yeah.

Irvin:

How have you seen the advanced materials lab change since you began there in 1994?

Chen:

In the beginning, if you looked at the industry in Taiwan, when we had just returned, microelectronics was probably the only one that all the students would choose as highest priority industry for their jobs. Gradually, we had developed beyond electronics, to optoelectronics such as LEDs and displays, and then also information technology and so on. In the University, although we can still focus on some fundamental aspects as much as we want because that is also our main duty, or one of our main duties, to have the fundamental training. But, it is also a general change, like America, that doing just basic science alone is not sufficient or not justified for the taxpayers’ money. The same trend in Taiwan that we need to do more applied and we need to deliver maybe something that can convince the taxpayers better than just doing whatever we like. In terms of defining the research topic, I am doing more like application-driven than merely curiosity-driven basic science. Though I still do a lot of basic science, there is an application in mind in the near future. Changes occurred in the students also. In the very beginning, very few students wanted to pursue a Ph.D. because in Taiwan, since our microelectronics industry only takes Master’s. So they ended with a Master’s and then they just left school. Later on, there was also a period of time that the industry started to take Ph.D. students. Then, there was a wave of engineers returning for more advanced studies. They were tired of the jobs in industry. They have no life to speak of. In Taiwan, it is very intensive working hours. So, they started to tell their juniors, don’t come to this TSMC, don’t come to this big company. No life. Then there was also a period of time that we have a lot of students who wanted to do Ph.D.s, and that was about 10 years ago. Then, in the last 3-5 years, we produced too many Ph.D.s [laughs], therefore, they start to worry about their job opportunity and also because of the competition of microelectronics, with Korean, with Chinese, etc. Again, students get worried about jobs, and they don’t come to Ph.D. My lab is changing a lot in the composition of the students. In the beginning, I just had Taiwanese students. Now I have more than 30% international students, which is actually a fun part. As the society progressed and more options for career development, Taiwanese students don’t want to do Ph.D. in science and technology anymore. This phenomenon is probably similar to that occurred in U.S. decades ago. Since American students did not want to pursue Ph.D., right, so that’s why we had the chance to go to the United States. To solve our human resource-shortage problem, what we do is to recruit students from Southeastern countries, India and Middle-east countries, wherever it is not a problem. We usually don’t have degree-earning students from America, but there are more and more American and European students coming to my lab for their internship. With this kind of change in the student body, I enjoy interacting with young people from different countries, different culture, and facilitating the opportunity for their cross-culture interactions with local students. I think this is a very good change that we have become more internationalized, and enriched in our life through learning different cultures and problems they are facing. Just like the situations we had 30 years ago in Taiwan, we were eager to become more developed. We were eager to become prosperous without knowing the price we need to pay. In particular, we were not aware of the environmental problem, so we sacrificed a lot for Taiwan’s pollution. Now, we are strong enough to take care of this problem. However, it is already there for long, so it is difficult to clean up. Whenever I had the opportunity, I would love to share with these young students from Southeastern countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippine, these heartfelt experiences. They are also developing rapidly, but I told them not at the expense of the living quality. I sincerely hope they can really develop in a different way than Taiwan. This is also a very satisfying part of my job, yeah.

Irvin:

Kind of along those lines, what kinds of things to find most satisfying in a job in general?

Chen:

The nature of the research is really to solve the problems that you have a sense of value and you feel that you can contribute to the earth and so on. This is the very nature of the research, and that is already enjoyable to me. The other important matter is, the way that we work together as a team with different types of people. Our center really absorbed researchers with a lot of different backgrounds. In my group alone, I have students coming from eight different departments. From department to department, there are also some minor cultural differences, even though it is all within NTU. Physicists, chemists, chemical engineers, and so on with different cultures are melting together. It is very much fun to observe the outcome of such a melting pot. Besides benefiting from the complementary technical backgrounds, I also find equally beneficial personality-wise. This reminds me to the occasion when I joined GE; they always asked us to form a team, and my mentor mentioned a relation between a group member and a zoo. He told us that we should have a zoo, wherein we should not have just one type of animal, but many types. If you put people having only one type of personality in a group, it wouldn’t work. You need somebody to be a tiger. You need somebody to be a rabbit or fox, this and that, because if you work with the same type of personality, such as tigers, they would probably waste all the time just fighting with each other. So you better have a composition of group members like a zoo with many different types of personality. Then you will learn to reconcile with all the disagreements, with all the arguments, and still settle a solution that different types of personality can accept. I think that is a good analogy, and I also enjoy my team in such a manner that I see different people with different types of background as well as personality. I don’t know, maybe this is too long of an answer to your question.

Irvin:

Not at all, not at all. So the next couple of questions that I have are in regards to some awards and honors that you have received.

Awards and Honors

Irvin:

For what research achievement did you earn the National Science Council Outstanding Research Award in 2007?

Chen:

That was my first significant award. In that period of time, we had already spent almost 10 years of effort into nanomaterial. In my group at that time, my curiosity-driven research developed some nanowire, from single phase to composite to the hybrid type of nanostructure with one dimensionally transport property and assembly was our main focus. My lab was able to produce a type of composite that gave us a very strong wavelength and selective switching behavior. For that work, we made it into a Nature Materials paper. I think the work is kind of novel, and perhaps there is also impact and interesting applications, so Nature Materials accepted it, and it was also featured in Materials Today and also elected to be a fast-breaking paper by ISI web of science. It was the first one in Taiwan to be in this category. This work was a significant attraction to the reviewer, so I was selected for this outstanding award, which is very competitive.

Irvin:

For what research were you named a Fellow of the Materials Research Society (MRS) in 2010?

Chen:

Okay. MRS is my favorite society. I joined MRS when I was a graduate student at Harvard. At that time all my classmates attended the MRS meetings in Boston. I have a strong affection to MRS for the quality of their meetings. Even after I returned to Taiwan, I have continued my attendance and to present papers at MRS. Also, I was involved in organizing symposiums, and I was actually appointed as one of the four meeting chairs for 2009 MRS Fall meeting. That was a two-year job. We were appointed in 2007 and then we had to work towards a big meeting like that. It was quite an experience and of course, quite an honor for me to take part in MRS. For the research I do with nanowire, I also gave a tutorial at MRS. Anyways, I think it was not just because of my technical contribution in nanowire area, but also the citation of the fellow included my service to the society.

Irvin:

For what achievements were you awarded the Outstanding Scholar Award from both Ho Chin-Tui Foundation (2012) and the Foundation for the Advancement of Outstanding Scholarship in Taiwan (2010-2015)?

Chen:

This Outstanding Scholar Award, sponsored by the Ho Chin-Tui Foundation, has been established for a long time. It was established in honor of the founder of a Taiwan steel-making company. This is a cash award to the recipient who is judged by the award committee based on the contribution to the Materials Sciences, Basic Sciences and Life Sciences. I was selected in the Materials Category. Anyways, the Ho Chin-Tui Award not only emphasizes the individual’s academic achievement but also values a broader impact to the society. It was competitive and I tried three times for that. Meanwhile, the Foundation for the Advancement of Outstanding Scholarship offers another high-profile award. The cash award is good for five years. I got 50% pay raise for five years, indeed a big sum of money. Of course, it is very competitive too. The establishment of this scholarship has a lot to do with Professor Yuan T. Lee. He was a Nobel laureate in 1986 when he was still a professor in chemistry at Berkeley. He returned to Taiwan in the early 90’s and inspired a lot of young students and more established scientists as well. After he returned to Taiwan, he found the salary difference between Taiwan and America is so huge. So Yuan T. Lee had the idea that scientists should not be paid this low, and to attract good people from established countries, we had to offer them better if not comparable, at least not such a huge gap. He lobbied in the industry and accumulated a large sum of money with its interest to be given to the Outstanding Scholars. Originally, they only used it to attract international well-established scientists to return to Taiwan. But as time went by, this pool of talents drained out. They started to open a few quota to domestic scientists, for their academic accomplishment, especially originality and creativity. I was already considered to be domestic because I had been back in Taiwan for more than ten years. I am quite lucky, actually, because the first time I tried I received it.

Irvin:

Yeah, that is quite an accomplishment.

Chen:

Thanks. I still think I am lucky I should say because there were a lot of people as qualified.

Irvin:

Well, luck and hard work.

Chen:

Yes.

Irvin:

For what achievements were you awarded the Acharya Vinova International Award in Materials Science and Technology for year 2013?

Chen:

This is a pleasant surprise. I had no idea about this award to begin with. I attended an Advanced Material Award Congress about two years before I got this award. At that time, I was invited to give a keynote speech in the Advanced Material Award Congress held in Delhi, India. Because of the status of the keynote speaker, I needed to provide them with my C.V. My keynote addressed some important issues about fuel-cell catalysts. Currently, precious metals such as platinum and ruthenium are used, and the cost of these metals has hindered the development of the fuel cells. I advocated that we should devote more research efforts to non-precious metal catalysts. My lab has developed a new class of molecular compounds to replace platinum. The concepts centering on potentially effective but low cost material development and environmentally friendly processes probably attracted their attention. This award is connected to that Congress, a biennial congress held in different country each time. Because I was never asked to apply for that award, I don’t really know how the process goes. I am the third recipient of this award. The two previous awardees, the first one is a Swedish scientist and the second one is a Japanese scientist, are all much more senior and certainly more established than me. Again, this was a surprise to me when I received the letter telling me I was awarded and that I should attend this Congress again, to be held in Izmir, Turkey, to receive this award. I was pleased but sort of checked, “Who is Archarya Vinova?” This name was unfamiliar to me. Then I found he is actually an important person in India. He is kind of a spiritual hire for Gandhi, a great man in India. You can find his story on Wikipedia. This award has a broad coverage of not only materials science and technology, but also biology, ocean, planetary sciences. So there is really no limitation in terms of the research type. However, they do emphasize something green, something sustainable, and something with a strong consciousness of the well being of our earth. My guess is that my keynote speech two years before the award may have inspired the nomination. Nobody told me that he or she recommended me, and the person I suspected said no, not him. So I have no idea who recommended me. It was a pleasant surprise.

Irvin:

What research did you pursue when you were named Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK in 2008?

Chen:

Another surprise. I started with a Taiwan-UK collaboration project two years before this fellowship. Compared to the US and a lot of big countries and well-developed countries in Europe, Taiwan is actually quite small, however, very energetic compared to some other countries. In late nineties and the beginning of this century, we entered the stage that a lot of other countries were actively sending people to come to Taiwan, signing MOU for collaboration. My first joint collaboration was also an outcome of these initiatives. The British office in Taipei has actively arranged a number of technical meetings and visits from scientists in the UK. One of the visits was the director of Nanoscience Center in Northern Ireland. I was asked by the British office to host him for two hours. So he came to my Center, and saw my lab, and he was amazed by our ability to grow a range of carbon nanotubes in the microwave CVD system. They had the CVD system as well, but somehow they couldn’t grow as well as we did at that time. So he started to probe the opportunity of collaboration. At that time, the National Science Council of Taiwan had already established some agreement with the Royal Society in the UK. Under such an agreement, we can exchange people for oversea research We had a good time in this bilateral joint collaboration project for two years. After our seeding project was over, they wanted to continue. My British collaborator, McLaughlin took the initiative to provide information and apply the fellowship for me. He was talking about my giving courses in addition to performing collaboration research. Though I couldn’t really stay that long for giving courses, continuing technical collaboration was attractive to me. So I got this Distinguished Research Fellow Award, which is quite competitive as well. It is the carbon nanotube array grown by microwave enhanced CVD that stands out and brings me this award. We have some in-house knowledge, more like know-how, which has never been patented, and I sort of shared this know-how with them. Later on they could also grow arrays of carbon nanotubes. We continued to explore this type of material for a lot of applications, including electrochemistry, for energy devices and sensors. In particular, they are very strong in biosensors.

Irvin:

Which professional organizations are you a member of and which of those organizations has been most beneficial or meaningful to you?

Chen:

I am a member of the Materials Research Society, the American Vacuum Society (AVS), and the Electrochemical Society (ECS). MRS is number one for me. I have spent a lot of time there, getting involved as volunteers and my sense of belonging is the strongest. The most memorable one among all is that I was appointed as one of the four meeting chairs for MRS Fall meeting.

Irvin:

And why is that the top choice for you? What make it the best choice for you?

Chen:

I think each society does have its own character, culture, and so on. MRS has a lot of elements I like. The organization belongs to all its members; however, it is not that easy to see the organization has a fair representation of each particular subgroup, gender, ethnic and others. You’d probably see some familiar names in a society, a lot of times they come back and organize symposiums and for many times you see this name – too many times. I think MRS is doing quite well on diversity. AVS was slightly more conservative compared to MRS, but they changed about 20 years ago. They also changed the way they operate, more towards MRS-like. In fact, I have helped the establishment of the AVS-Taiwan Chapter. Three local societies in Taiwan have had very active collaboration with the AVS nowadays. ECS, to my view, was probably the most conservative of the three I joined. Nevertheless, I did organize a few symposia at ECS and enjoyed the technical symposia there too.

Gender Related

Irvin:

Now that we have talked about your career, one of the things we are particularly interested in for this interview is the challenges of being a woman in a STEM field. So I’d love for you to talk about in whatever way feels appropriate for you. But just to start off, have you ever experienced discrimination based upon your gender or race in your career?

Chen:

Discrimination would be too strong a word I think. There are differences I see, and if I were a more withdrawn person, I would probably really view that as discrimination. But nevertheless, let me share with you a story that happened in GE that may clarify why I mention that discrimination is probably too strong a word. I was the first female PI in the lab that I joined in GE. When I went to the machine shop, or other groups to ask for help, a lot of men did not know I was a PI. They thought I was a technician or administration staff. I could feel the different attitude they were showing towards the technician. The technician is like their subordinate, just a supporting member. A PI is of course different. At that time, there were just so few female scientists in the STEM field holding a PI position. I wouldn’t say it is racist or discrimination towards women. After a while, they figured out I was a PI. Then I saw the change in their attitude. Another thing I would also like to share with you is about my manager. There were a few occasions in which I found uncomfortable, specifically, whenever he assigned tasks to the group members, he assigned Peter, he assigned John, and he assigned this and that to all the male colleagues. But he seemed to ignore me. I was a little bit upset because I was also interested in seeing the aircraft engines, lighting, and other products of real life you know. But then how come in front of the team he always ignored me? So one time I visited my manager’s office, and I told him, “I think I am qualified to participate in the projects that you were looking at this morning.” Then, he said, “So, you’re interested. Okay. But we do have to go to Cleveland, we do have to go to places out of state, and now you are pregnant and I also understand you have a young kid, just two years old. Are you sure you want to come with us?” So, you know, after this conversation, I realized I am not being discriminated. My manager, actually, was kind of thoughtful and being considerate for my situation. At that moment, I told him immediately, “My husband is supportive, and I have a live-in nanny to take care of my daughter, so if I have to go outside for a day or two, I am okay. I am perfectly fine to participate in such a project. So he said, “Oh, okay. Then I will ask you to join us.” This was a story that really inspired me that I shouldn’t be shy to speak up. I might have been shy and I might have been so reserved to say, “Oh, okay. I am being discriminated.” But it was not discrimination in that situation. Sometimes it is really not intentional or unconscious discrimination. Just speak up.

Irvin:

Did you feel any additional pressure to balance your professional and personal/family life?

Chen:

Of course. It is really a period of high-pressure time with young kids and early career, all very demanding. For me, I managed to hire a really good live-in nanny. I had her for helping me throughout my entire career in my GE time. After I returned to Taiwan, my mother helped me. In this regard, I was lucky to have a live-in nanny and mother. On the other hand, not many people are this lucky. We all need help. That is the most important thing. No matter what you do with your kids and job, you need help. You can’t balance without help.


Irvin:

Do you have any advice for a woman in a demanding career who wishes to start or maintain a family life?

Chen:

I think it is not a problem at all to start and maintain a family life with a demanding career. Things might get a little bit slower with work at times when I needed to take care of the kids when they were young. Nevertheless, I am happy with my decision of having kids with job. Now they are all grown up, already in graduate school. There are up and down moments in my family life. Sometimes we are in good terms and sometimes not. But in the end, it is really a strong tie. With a supportive family, I feel I can do my job better and vice versa. If I have a satisfying career, and my daughters see me how I work and how I enjoy family life in the same time, I think that encourages them to also pursue the career they like. Of course, as I mentioned before, you do need some additional help to balance family and work.

Irvin:

How have you seen women’s role in STEM fields change over the years?

Chen:

For the last five or 10 years or so, I think women in STEM fields are becoming leaders – directorships, chairwomen, this and that. We see this a lot more in Taiwan as well. The shifting tide occurs globally, starting around the time when I had a position in GE, at that time, I was the first female scientist in that lab as a PI. Now in the NTU campus, I see a lot more female department chairs and institutional directors. That is a big change. Such change has a profound impact on the younger generation. Recently, when I asked one of my Ph.D. students, “What do you like to do?” after I knew she has a boyfriend, and she wants to go abroad, but he doesn’t. I asked her how she is going to reconcile the different opinions in future plan with her boyfriend. She said, “Of course I choose to go abroad. I like to do what I like. I will try to keep the long-distance relationship, and we’ll see whether I can continue or not with him, but I am not going to give up my dream.” It was a very different attitude 20 years ago. There was a similar situation with a former female student in my lab, but she was more conservative. Back then, she was worried about a breakup with the boyfriend. So I think women are having more say about what they like in their life.

Reflection and Advice

Irvin:

So now I’d like to ask you a few questions to reflect on your career and give some advice before we wrap up. Have you seen any notable trends in education in general or in STEM education?

Chen:

The trend in education I noticed is that it is more stimulating in terms of course design nowadays. Some of the professors design unique courses. Overall, the whole environment in STEM education is more encouraging for people to explore their potential. This change obviously will help the girls in high school. In Taiwan, I also participate in some science education oriented foundation activity. The foundation would pick nine female high schools to have a one-day workshop for the female students. In this workshop, three female scientists, representing from the established stage to early career, are invited to reach out to these young female high-school students and encourage them to come to STEM. The whole society is aware of the importance to cultivate the young brains equally. Although the progress is very slow, we must do something to make a better environment to attract and accept females in STEM.

Irvin:

How could your experiences help someone just entering or contemplating entering a STEM field?

Chen:

I have already been involved in promoting the interest of female students to enter a STEM field for a number of years. During the many workshops I mentioned above, I got very good feedback from participating students, enthusiastically interacting Q&A. Some of the students would even approach me after my talks and discussion sessions. They shared with me the problems they had with her family who is stopping her or discouragement from her teacher. It is kind of very private discussion, showing her trust in me in giving advice to pursue what she really likes. I try my best to tell her not to worry and not to give up. Everyone needs time to be convinced. You have to be patient and persistent. It is important that you like what you do and you do what you like, even though your score may not be convincing to the schoolteacher. I don’t think you need to be on top of your class to be a good scientist. A good scientist just needs a good heart and perseverance on the problem that you would like to solve. That is enough. So don’t worry about your score. The teacher may need time and for your father or brother they also need time. You need to be patient. Just stick to it. As long as you are firm and steadily move along, all the people around you would support you eventually. This is what I always have with such an occasion. I enjoy helping people stick to their values and genuine interests in STEM field.

Irvin:

Overall, what is the greatest obstacle you overcame in your career or in life?

Chen:

I think it would be my own self. I could give you a lot of examples but because of time limitations I can’t. When meeting obstacles, if you just stop, nothing will happen. However, the “obstacle” may not be a true obstacle, there is a chance that it is just misunderstanding and miscommunication. Sometimes it wasn’t a problem at all, like the story of my manager at GE mentioned above. Of course, you may encounter stubborn males, who are stubborn about a wrong value. But give them some time; as I mentioned to the young school students, just be patient, and they will be eventually convinced and even embrace a gender-obstacle free environment, because it is mutually beneficial. The obstacle won’t hurt you, provided that you do not view the obstacle your fault, but rather, proactively find ways to resolve.

Irvin:

Just as the last question, Eleanor Roosevelt once said “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” What are your goals that you will be realizing in the coming years?

Chen:

I am aiming for green energy, and my hope is really a society that is nuclear free. In Taiwan we cannot afford the potential catastrophe from nuclear power because of frequent typhoons and earthquakes. It’s better that Taiwan be a green environment. In fact, the whole world shall have a better environment, and better energy options. As a scientist, I treasure the opportunity to work on the energy and environment-related problems. Then on the human side, I think everybody is enjoying a society that he or she is free to speak, and this would be my dream.

Irvin:

That’s wonderful.

Chen:

It’s probably too general.

Irvin:

Not at all. Is there anything I’ve neglected to ask you that you would like to add?

Chen:

Not at this moment. You can go by email if you like.

Irvin:

And you can also make changes and additions to the transcription once I transcribe it and send it to you. You can change it as much as you want. If there are any misheard words or anything you can change that as well.

Conclusion

Irvin:

Well, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this oral history interview. We will be contacting you to review the transcript of this interview so that you have the opportunity to make any changes or additions. Meeting you and conducting your oral history interview truly has been my pleasure. I know you have to get your meeting, but I really appreciate it. This has been very helpful and very enlightening.

Chen:

Okay, thank you.

Irvin:

Thank you very much. Nice to meet you.