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Profile: Lai-Sheng Wang

Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1287
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1287

Country: China

Field: Physical Chemistry

Workplace: Washington State University/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

CREDIT: PNNL

A bloody massacre will forever be a defining moment in the career of physical chemist Lai-Sheng Wang. Like thousands of other Chinese-born researchers who came to study in the United States in the late 1980s, Wang took advantage of relaxed immigration rules following the Chinese Army's 1989 crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in order to stay. He became a U.S. citizen in 1998.

“I think I might have tried to stay anyway, but without Tiananmen I probably would have had to go back home,” says Wang, who holds a joint appointment at Washington State University in Richland and the nearby Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Wang, 42, came in 1983 for graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and joined Washington State a decade ago after a postdoctoral stint with Nobel laureate Richard Smalley at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Since then, he has published regularly in top-tier journals and won accolades for his work probing the structure of nanomaterials. He doubts he could have done as well at home, although he says China and other nations are beginning to catch up to the United States. “The facilities and cooperation here are very advanced,” he says.

Despite his accomplishments, Wang says it has “taken years, years, and years” to adapt to the more aggressive and outspoken culture of American science. “In the beginning I just wanted to study,” he says. But as his English improved, “I came to realize that I was expected to ask questions and be skeptical. I had to become less passive and more confident to keep up.”

Now, Wang recognizes some of the same passivity in his own graduate students, among them seven from China and one from India. “They tend to speak out only when they are absolutely sure of themselves,” he says. But his efforts to encourage more debate, he adds, “sometimes succeed.”

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