Lighting up chemistry research through ‘upconversion’

Research Lives: Dr Junsi Wang, TCD PhD graduate and Takeda researcher

Dr Junsi Wang (second from left) receiving the Royal Irish Academy Young Chemist Prize for 2017 with (from left) Dr Matthew Holloway of Henkel Global (award sponsors), Prof Pat Guiry, science secretary at RIA, Prof Peter Kennedy, RIA president, and Prof Sylvia Draper of TCD. Photograph: Johnny Bambury

Dr Junsi Wang (second from left) receiving the Royal Irish Academy Young Chemist Prize for 2017 with (from left) Dr Matthew Holloway of Henkel Global (award sponsors), Prof Pat Guiry, science secretary at RIA, Prof Peter Kennedy, RIA president, and Prof Sylvia Draper of TCD. Photograph: Johnny Bambury

 

How did you become interested in chemistry?
It is an interesting story. Chemistry was not my first choice after leaving school. I chose chemical engineering as the major for my bachelor degree [at Dailan University of Technology, China]. What led me to chemistry was my eagerness to discover something concrete and something new. All I had to do was pick a research topic and a research team that would help me make a difference.

What was your PhD thesis about and what could your discoveries lead to in the future?
My thesis is all about designing and making some very special materials and testing them for a photonic process called upconversion. This is an energy transfer process. It uses the molecule to capture light and then emit it at a new higher energy. Not many molecules are able to do this and even less do it well.

They are important though, because adding upconversion to a solar cell improves its ability to capture sunlight and makes it more efficient. I was able to make some really effective upconvertors. Not only that, but as they were non-toxic they could be useful in photodynamic therapy. This is a treatment that is being applied to certain types of cancer, such as skin cancer.

Without Prof Draper’s guidance and support, and the expertise of all the members of her research team, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I would not have got such wonderful results. It was a 2013 Irish Research Council grant that allowed all this to happen.

What were the challenges and rewards of doing a PhD?
Scientific research is unpredictable. Every success happens because of the hundreds or thousands of failures that went before. It takes time and patience. After one year I realised that failure is a state of mind, not a reality. The most important thing I got from doing a PhD is a strong heart. Truly, it seems daunting to challenge oneself, but I was surrounded by inspiring people and enjoyed every minute of it.

Congratulations, you have just been awarded the Royal Irish Academy’s Young Chemist Prize for 2017, can you tell us what that is?
Thank you very much. I am so delighted to have won this prize. It is awarded to the most outstanding Irish PhD thesis in the general area of the chemical sciences. I had to submit a 1,000-word essay that explained the impact of my work, which I carried out over four years in the group of Prof Sylvia Draper in TCD Chemistry. The awardee is selected by a group from the RIA’s Physical, Chemical and Mathematical Sciences Committee.

What are your plans now?
I am still challenging myself. I have joined a research team as a post-doctoral researcher in Takeda, the largest pharmaceutical company in Japan. I am closer to home but immersed in another new culture.

How do you take a break from research – do you have hobbies or tips for relaxing?
I started running at the beginning of my PhD – it helps me to relax. I have completed the Irish womens’ mini marathon three times. Sometimes I watch movies, practise calligraphy or travel with friends. Research is done as part of a team, but you are also in control of your day. If I am having a bad day, I stop, do something else, and return to it again refreshed. Keeping a balance is essential.