Alumni Spotlight: H.N. Cheng ‘69

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Our latest Alumni Spotlight features HN Cheng ‘69, 2021 President of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

Dr. H.N. Cheng graduated summa cum laude and with departmental highest honors from the UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry in 1969. He then went on to receive his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1974. After a productive industrial career, Cheng joined the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service at the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans in 2009, where he carries out research in green polymer chemistry and commodities utilization. In 2019 Cheng was elected as ACS President-Elect (serving in 2020) and became ACS President in 2021. 

1.  Why did you choose to attend UCLA?

I was interested in a school with a strong chemistry program, and UCLA had (and still has) a highly rated chemistry department. The expenses at UCLA were also much lower than those at a private school. I was impressed by the faculty and enjoyed the camaraderie among the students. I believe I made a very good choice. 

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2.  Who and/or what influenced you most during your time at UCLA?

My answer here may surprise you. The quarter system at UCLA had a large impact on me. Each quarter lasted for about 10 consecutive weeks with no breaks. Since I took a full load of courses each quarter, I needed to plan my work, organize my time, and follow a busy schedule in order to keep up with the course materials, homework, mid-term exams, term papers (if any), and final exams. I learnt the importance of time management, planning, and organization. These lessons served me well in my career. 

(Pictured right, Dr. Cheng when he was a UCLA undergraduate.)

Of course, I appreciated the chemistry professors who taught me at UCLA. They were very good teachers and gave me a solid foundation in chemistry. 

3.  Share your best college memory.

Then as now, UCLA was not only an excellent school in academics but also good in sports. One evening, I was tired from a hard day’s work in the chemistry building and decided to return to the dorm (Rieber Residence Hall). As usual, I took the short cut and walked across the athletic field. As I passed by the Pauley Pavilion, I could hear an ongoing basketball game. I walked in, bought a ticket, and sat about halfway up the bleachers. It turned out that UCLA was playing against Minnesota. I missed the beginning of the game, but it was clear that UCLA dominated the show, and Lew Alcindor [UCLA alumnus and legendary professional basketball player now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] stood out among the players. At the end, we easily won by 30 points. It was an exciting game, and I did not feel tired anymore. This experience really reinforced my pride in the school.

4.  What is the most important thing you learned while at UCLA?

A key lesson that I learned was to love what you do and do what you love. Even if I had to work hard, I did not complain because it was a labor of love. Of course, I loved chemistry and always did well in the chemistry courses. In addition to chemistry, I took several “general education” courses. These included four courses in German, two courses in sociology, and one course each on Integrated Arts, Development of Jazz, Far East Poetry, and Survey of Persian Literature in Translation. I could honestly say that I never took a course that I did not like. In every course, I just told myself that I could learn this subject, no matter how unfamiliar I was with it. For example, for the course on Far East poetry, I needed to translate Chinese poems into English. Since I loved poetry, it was a pleasure to do the translation. In the case of Persian literature, I took the course on the Pass/Fail basis and actually got an A. Even now (more than 50 years later) I can recall the major dynasties in Persian history (Achaemenid, Arsacid, Sasanid, Seljuks, Ilkhanid, Safavid, Afshar, Zand, Qajar, and Pahlavi) and the major poets in the 10th – 14th centuries (Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Attar, Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez). Of course, I should give credit to all the teachers who made these courses as interesting as possible.  

5.  What advice do current students have to make the most out of their experience at UCLA?

Work hard and enjoy. For me, my college years were the happiest years of my life. I was young, healthy, and energetic.  I did not have any responsibilities other than schoolwork. So, I worked hard to keep up with my studies and enjoyed college life. And you should, too. Perhaps you might find out years later that your UCLA years were also the best years of your life.

6.  Describe your career path

After getting my B.S. in chemistry from UCLA, I went to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and obtained a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. I then went to Bell Telephone Labs and worked for two years on polymer chemistry (which was new to me). I was employed for three years by General Aniline & Film (GAF) Corporation as an analytical chemist (again new to me). I then worked at Hercules Incorporated for almost 30 years. I started in the analytical department and became a group leader, supervising a group of 12 scientists and 18 technicians. I then moved to Pioneering Research, which became Corporate Research. I became one of the two managers, managing a multidisciplinary group. I then moved to Pulp and Paper Division. I acquired diversified experience during my industrial jobs, including project management, new business development, product commercialization, and even some animal and clinical trials. It is noteworthy that I changed my fields about every seven years, sometimes not by choice. With every change, I had to adapt and learn new things. Towards the latter part of my employment at Hercules, I held the rank of Senior Research Fellow, the highest scientific rank of the company at the time. In 2009, I joined USDA Agricultural Research Service at the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans, where I carry out research in green polymer chemistry and commodities utilization. 

I joined the American Chemical Society (ACS) as a member in 1982. Since the 1990s, I started to get more involved with ACS. A colleague at Hercules encouraged me to organize symposia for ACS Polymer Chemistry Division. Another Hercules colleague got me involved with ACS local section in Delaware. Not long afterwards, I began to take on leadership positions at both Delaware Section and Polymer Division. As it turned out, I enjoyed the experience and was reasonably good at them. Then I took on assignments at the ACS national level, serving in increasingly important roles. In 2019, after a long campaign, I was elected as ACS President-Elect (serving in 2020) and became ACS President in 2021.

7.  How did your education at UCLA prepare you for what you are doing today?

Two aspects of my UCLA education have been important to my career. Certainly, the scientific knowledge I learned has been critical to the technical part of my work. Another aspect is the information that I gained in general education courses, such as history, literature, art, music, and sociology. These courses broadened my outlook and gave me different perspectives. I learned to look at problems from bigger pictures and study them from different angles.  These outlooks and approaches are useful for someone in a leadership position. 

8.  What is your greatest professional accomplishment?

Thus far, I have published about 300 papers and edited 23 books. These numbers are perhaps not impressive in academia, but they are less common for people in industry where publications are not really encouraged. I have also contributed to several profitable products in the marketplace. Another accomplishment is my ACS work, including my recent activities as ACS President.  If you are interested, you can find a summary of my ACS work in this webpage:

9.  Anything else you would like to add?

1. A major activity of the chemistry enterprise involves research and innovation. Thus, if a student is interested in chemistry, I would strongly encourage the student to seek opportunities to do research. At UCLA I was fortunate to have two valuable research experiences. In my first job, I worked as a lab assistant in the UCLA Radiocarbon Laboratory (part of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics). I was a full-time student, so I only worked about 10-20 hours per week, but I learnt a lot. I appreciated the opportunity given to me by Dr. Rainer Berger, the director of the laboratory. In summer 1969, I was lucky to be selected for the NSF-Undergraduate Research Participant program. I worked for Dr. Jim Sudmeier on the photolysis of a rhodium complex. I prepared the complex and carried out the photoconversion experiments. I appreciated Dr. Sudmeier’s guidance, and it was a very worthwhile experience. 

2. You may wonder how I managed to publish so many papers while I was in industry. Basically, as an industrial scientist, I was afraid to lose touch of cutting-edge research, so I decided to work two shifts. During the day (eight or more hours a day), I worked hard on the company’s projects. At night and on weekends, I put in 30 more hours a week 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. It was certainly a lot of work, but it was a labor of love.

Thank you, Dr. Cheng for taking the time to answer our questions!

Article by Nikki Erinakis and Penny Jennings,