After the completion of his two new books on semiconductors (click here for more details) and liquid crystal materials (currently in production, with an estimated publication date in 2012), Dr. Quan Li from Kent State University participated in an interview with Materials Views to discuss his leading research and scientific challenges.
What attracted you to science and how did you get to where you are now?
A: My mother told me that when I was a kid, I was very curious about the natural world around me and always liked to ask “why?” too much. Why can spiders walk on ceilings freely without falling down? Why do sunflowers face towards the sun? Why is the color of tree leaves green? How do birds fly? This curiosity continued even when I got into primary and secondary schools. I was also lucky enough to have numerous outstanding and inspiring science teachers during high school and college. My advisors always encouraged me to be hardworking and persistent if I wanted to have a successful career. Moreover, my very talented and dedicated students and my collaborators have also helped tremendously during my journey and made me stand out.
Were there any strong childhood influences that lead you to this career?
It is my strong curiosity to Mother Nature.
How did you view science and scientists as a child?
A: Science is a noble career of dignity in my mind. I always wished that one day I could get involved in science and become one of the dedicated and influential scientists in the future.
What (or who) have been your biggest influences or motivation?
A: My biggest motivation is to develop intelligent viable materials and devices to save energy and generate green energy.
What would you have done if you had not taken this career path?
A: I would have lived in my hometown surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakes, where I could listen to the sounds of Nature every moment.
What motivated you to choose a career in academia instead of industry?
It is the freedom to think independently, to define my scientific goals, and to pursue challenging ideas and concepts, which is often not open in industry.
What got you interested in materials science as a subject, and how did you develop your current research interests in molecular design and synthesis?
Many concepts in materials science are Nature-inspired. Moreover, in materials science, self-organized systems are very intriguing because small and discrete molecular systems can be programmed to self-organize into large and complex architectures in multiple dimensions and multiple length scales and display a range of functionality. Liquid crystals are very promising in materials science; however, their technological applications in display devices almost predominantly obscure the other applications of liquid crystals. Nevertheless, many applications beyond displays are emerging for liquid crystals currently. My attempt is to bring such non-display applications of liquid crystals to the forefront.
An important part of research in my group is focused on nature-inspired molecular design to harvest sunlight and intelligent self-organized stimuli responsive soft materials for dynamic photonics and energy-saving devices.
How does this work fit into a wider scientific / general context?
The concepts mentioned above would be in the forefront of science.
What influence do you believe your work will have?
I believe my work would provide an impetus to the above frontiers and inspire young scientists.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Conceptualizing, planning and executing new ideas, sharing the expected and unexpected results with others, and being surrounded by highly dedicated students and witnessing the excitement of their success.
Which of your publications are you most proud of? Which is your favorite piece of your own research?
It is hard to rank the publications that I am most proud of. However, I am certainly proud of my two recently edited books. The favorite piece of my own research includes demonstrating the first photodisplay without the need and cost of drive and control electronics, directing dynamic control of red, green and blue reflection and beyond enabled by a light-driven self-organized helical superstructure, fabricating intelligent multifunctional energy-saving window, and developing the highly ordered nanostructured liquid crystal porphyrin-fullerene blend thin films for self-organized organic photovoltaics.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the scientific community?
Discovering and developing new ideas to address the energy, environment, and economic problems of the world. Clean and green environments, sufficient renewable energy, and advanced scientific methods to address economic problems are main challenges.
What do you see as the rewards and outcomes of solving such challenges?
When the world becomes renewable energy sufficient with a clean environment and balanced economic prosperity, then our civilization could live in peace and harmony.
What is your biggest passion outside of science?
A: Outside of science, to lead an enriched life is my biggest passion. I like to have outdoor activities with my family and friends. When I play with my younger boy, Daniel, he rubs off inspirations as well as imaginations on me and makes me feel very young even though my elder son Songqiao is currently a college student.
What do you like to do to in your spare time?
What spare time???
I enjoy cooking, gardening, fishing, and listening to music. I also like to travel or just go somewhere without my phone and laptop so I can fully relax.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever discovered?
The coolest thing is to discover the molecules that self-organize into some elegant functional nanostructures for the applications in energy generation and energy saving.
What do you see as the most important scientific achievement of the last 100 years?
It might be the development of semiconducting materials which give human beings the opportunity to utilize the richest solar energy on the earth and beyond.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing scientists at the moment?
A: The first and foremost is the energy issue. Moreover, it is always a challenge to convince funding agencies or investors to sponsor scientific research.
Where do you see the field of materials science in 10 years time?
In a decade, materials science would provide a deeper understanding and more control over the macroscopic properties of materials by tailoring their microscopic properties at molecular level, i.e. materials could be better property-designed with respect to their desired device performance.
Finally, what should scientists aspire to?
Turn scientific ideas into technological advancements that lead to societal benefits.