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Li Yan: The prism of an idealistic female chemistry professor

Peking University, July 8, 2014: “I have a phone given to me here. Its screen is made of carbon nanotubes,” said Li Yan, as she took out one phone made in China from a draw within her easy reach. Noting that the application of carbon nanotubes is wide in electronics and other fields, she believes that carbon nanotube has a bright future.


Li Yan is a professor in College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering, Peking University. She specializes in preparation and properties of nano-materials and structures. Her academic achievement in this area is well recognized.



Li as a Female


Likeother natural science disciplines, chemistry is also a male-dominant discipline. Currently, the ratio of female and male professors in College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering, Peking University is 1:3 and among students, it is roughly 1:5.


As a female scholar in chemistry, Li confessed that it is not easy to be prominent in a male-dominant scientific community, considering women bear more social responsibilities and burden of family.


But Li was not pessimistic about the outlook for female scholars. She enumeratedthree advantages of them. Firstly, they are diligent. Secondly, they are better at teamwork, which helps them more as nowadays eachresearch project requires systematic work and teamwork. Thirdly, they are more willing to listen. The communicational skill plays an important role in setting up a team.


Li also gavesome advice for future female chemists. “They must be very cautious when they make the decisionwhether they will devote themselves to chemistry.” Noting the difficulty they may face in future research, Li advisedthem to always be aware of their advantages and never belittle themselves. “These days I noticed a lot of ‘aggressive’ Peking University girls. I think they are really great.”



Li as a “Top Ten Professor”


“Teaching and doing research are my favorite things. They never contradict,” said Li, when asked whether teaching could take away the time spent on doing research.


Teaching helps her get a better understanding of the basic principles of chemistry, which is beneficial to doing research. It also drives her to be even more highly efficient, “like playing the piano.”


Besides teaching, Li also had four years’ experience as head of student affairs in the college. “I can easily make friends with young people. There is little generation gap between us,” said Li. Students often came to her for help whenever they had difficulties.


Li recalledthat when she was still in charge of student affairs, usually the first two weeks of a semester were fully scheduled as meetings with students. Nothing else. Li rememberedthat one time, a student whose high school classmate was Li’s student wrote an email to her to ask for help. “I really like this kind of students, because they know that they need to look for help when they are in trouble,” said Li.


Because of this close relationship with students, Li won the title of “Top Ten Professor” in 2008, which is the “most coveted” title for teachers in Peking University.



Li as PKU Chemist



“The research level of Peking University is definitely world-class. Our college is No. 15 on the ranking,” said Li. “We have made dramatic progress since the 1990s.”


The College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering has a complete range of areas in chemistry. Few universitiescan compete withPeking University in the aspect. Apart from that, the world is looking towards China and scholars from across the world are coming to China more often. As one of the best university, Peking University is on their top list.  Students have many opportunities to discuss face-to-face with the top scientists in the world.


Li also offeredher insight of the future for College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering–“Our next step is not to follow the steps of others, but to lead.” The society is developing fast. Everyone wants to see the results as soon as possible, but we need to have perception and persistence. “This kind of sense of achievement is different.”



Li as an Idealist


“Our generation is a whole bunch of idealists,” commented Li.


In 1997, when her son was just half year old and she has been an associate professor in Peking University for two years. They lived in Tongzilou (a building with plenty of rooms like little boxes). There was no room for the baby-sitter to live in, so she had to look after the baby by herself. “Cockroaches were all over the floor. And when we slept, on the floor, they would climb over our arms,” remembered Li. At that time, Li was offered a position in a company that would grand her house in Wangjing (north-east of Beijing). “But I declined without any hesitation. Why? Because I love this job. Peking University is my favorite. It does not matter whether they will give me a house or something.” To this day, there are still some companies offering hergood opening positions.


The 1980s was very idealistic. “Students today are more realistic,” said Li,“which reflects the feature of this society”. Society pressures them to face the reality. They have to weigh the disadvantages and advantages. They have to think and make the decision in the short term. “This is their advantage. But it can easily boil over into shortsightedness. So they must have long-term goals as well,” said Li.


Li is optimistic about the next generation of those who are the only child in their family. They have much broader horizons than Li’s generation. They are freeto do things that really interest them, rather than things that would only help them make a living. Their future would be so bright, if they have a long-term goal. “Those who do things that interest them most are the most admirable,” commented Li.


Written by: Chen Runxi

Edited by: Zhang Jiang