At the Eirelec ’11 meeting in Adare, Republic of Ireland last year, Professor Mike Lyons of Trinity College met Professor Joseph Wang of the University of California, San Diego. They spoke about Joe’s journey to becoming such a respected scientist, and what he feels about the future for the field of electrochemistry.
Mike: Professor Joe Wang from the University of California, San Diego – it’s really great to have you here in Adare. Could you tell us something about yourself? Your educational background and perhaps how you came to be an electrochemist?
Joe: Yes, this is an old story, long time ago. I grew up in Israel, and I got my degree in Chemistry from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. After my bachelor’s degree I was looking for a good advisor and I found Professor [Magda] Ariel; she was excellent electrochemist and I started to fall in love with electrochemistry. So, I was doing recon scripting anodic stripping analysis and environmental metal monitoring in the late 1970s, continued with a post doc in this, and then got a position in the US in 1980.
Mike: And it’s been onwards and upwards since then?
Joe: Oh yes!
Mike: Joe, from listening to your talk, you show very broad interests in electrochemistry. Could you tell us a little bit about your research and your current activities?
Joe: I moved over the years from New Mexico to Arizona and now I am in California (UCSD), in the department of nano engineering; I am no longer in the Chemistry department but I am applying all my broad knowledge of electrochemical principles to develop nano systems, such as nanomachines. My group works on nanosensors and also nanomotors, nanomachines and nanomaterials. We apply a lot of surface chemistry for functionalizing our nanomachines, and many of the propulsion mechanisms are based on electrochemical reactions of fuel like peroxide, so we rely on electrochemical principles throughout our nanoengineering research.
Mike: A general conclusion I remember way back in ’93 in the first Eirelec meeting, was that electrochemistry would play an in increasingly prominent role in the advancement of technology towards the year 2000 and beyond. Do you think that that prediction has been realized, and if so, how?
Joe: It has been realized, although more related to the energy field than in electroanalysis. With the growing energy crisis, you see more and more applications of electrochemistry; energy storage and conversion devices such as batteries, conventional fuel cells and solar cells all rely on electrochemical principles.
Analytical electrochemistry has also played a growing role: in established ways with ion-selective electrodes for electrolyte detection and enzyme electrodes for glucose testing, and in new avenues with nanoscale devices, detection of cellular processes, and mercury-free metal sensors.
Mike: Looking back to Eirelec ’93 once more, the perception was that there was a two culture divide between physical electrochemistry and analytical electrochemistry. Do you think that this divide still exists?
Joe: While the communities were a bit divided in the 1980s and 1990s, they are now getting closer and closer. Both physical electrochemistry and analytical electrochemistry rely on a fundamental understanding of the interface of electron-transfer processes and a judicious design of interfaces. So I think it’s all one field and we are applying the same principles: some of us develop enzyme electrode biosensors and some use similar biocatalytic electrodes for developing biofuel cells; it’s all one discipline.
Mike: That’s good to hear. Another point, electrochemistry seems to be an interdisciplinary area of research and is no longer solely the domain of electrochemists. What, in your opinion, are the implications of this for the future?
Joe: Yes, it is great to see that more and more fields use electrochemistry. It’s still all about current-potential relationships, used widely by researchers from other disciplines. Yet, for over 2-3 decades others used cyclic voltammetry for elucidating reaction mechanisms or carbon-fiber microelectrodes for studying brain activity.
Mike: So, what sort of implication do you think that it has for the education of students? Since electrochemistry is no longer a specialist arcane black art, organic, inorganic and materials chemists, amongst others, need to use electrochemical techniques. Do you think that our education in electrochemistry has to be broadened?
Joe: Yes, in teaching electrochemistry we need to respond to recent advances and needs, changing trends, and to make it simple for the young students to understand the fundamental principles without compromising quality. For example, we now hardly teach the dropping mercury electrode (despite it being an amazing excellent electrode) since mercury is no longer used worldwide. In contrast, because of the new applications of electrochemistry, we need to tailor our classes to cover more electrocatalysis or nanoscale electrochemistry, and to vigorously teach fundamental principles.
Mike: That leads us on very nicely to your famous text book in electrochemistry, which has been very well received. Do you think that that distinguished professors of electrochemistry should write textbooks?
Joe: As long as they can make electrochemistry simple enough for the reader/student, without compromising the quality. Sharing our knowledge and experience is an important obligation.
Mike: Joe, what do you think will drive electrochemistry in the next ten years? The theme of the conference is “Electrochemistry 2011: the future”, so what does the future hold for electrochemistry?
Joe: Well, as I previously mentioned, energy will play a key role so we need to design the interface and understand how to control electrochemical reactivity. We see a lot of new analytical devices for cancer screening or cellular activity; and don’t forget that my tiny nanomachines are propelled electrochemically.
Even in analytical devices, once people learn from the success of glucose strips or potassium selective electrodes, why not have similar devices for emergency testing for cardiac emergencies, for early cancer screening or airport screening for nitroaromatic explosives? So, electrochemistry has a very bright future, limited only by our imagination.
Mike: Are we any closer to getting a cholesterol sensor?
Joe: There have been numerous studies of cholesterol biosensors; yet, when compared to diabetes testing, the cholesterol market is not as big due to the less frequent cholesterol screening.
Mike: How optimistic would you be for the future of science in general? It’s getting much more difficult to get funding, there seems to be a quasi-conservative view amongst governments that the buck is the bottom line, and there seems to be a very short term attitude by the government with regard to scientific research?
Joe: We can talk about both Ireland and the US; you benefited from a boom of investment in the early 2000’s but now you are facing a major economic crisis. We also have a major deficit now, and despite major budget cuts our president is encouraging innovations and supports investment in science and technology, as in education, in general. These are all cycles and when I started my career in the early 1980s we had a major crisis in the USA. Investment in science and technology, and in education in general, is the key for economic growth.
Mike: So would you still say, with your hand to your heart, to a newly-minted Ph.D. student, “go for it, science is worth doing”?
Joe: Most certainly, yes. You can have lot of fun and even make very good living! Who was dreaming in the early 1980s that microfabricated glucose strips would become a 10 billion dollar industry, and that small, start-up companies would be sold for over a billion dollars. The future for electrochemical devices, from rechargeable batteries to nansensors, is very bright, due to the inherent advantages of these devices. And don’t forget that there is no substitute to our 100 year-old pH sensor.
Mike: I think that’s a very good note to end up on; Professor Joseph Wang, thank you very much.
Joe: My pleasure, it’s great to be back in Ireland, I always enjoy it.