The Hong Kong chemist on rigour, iconic discoveries and starting from scratch

An illustrated portrait of Vivian Yam

Vivian Yam

Source: © Peter Strain @ Début Art

Vivian Yam is Philip Wong Wilson Wong Professor in Chemistry and Energy and Chair Professor of Chemistry at The University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on the design and synthesis of new inorganic and organometallic complexes for emitting and harvesting light. In 2020 she was awarded the Porter Medal for her contributions to photochemistry. She was speaking to Emma Pewsey.

It’s a very colourful world. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by all the colours in the flowers and in the sky, but at that time I didn’t know it was related to chemistry. My first encounter with chemicals was probably in primary school, when I accidentally broke a thermometer. The mercury was flowing around, coalescing – it was so interesting. I actually kept the mercury in a small vial, and from time to time I took it out to play with. My mother didn’t know about it.

My first job was in a new department of applied science in a polytechnic. We had to go from scratch, ordering the first beaker in the lab, the first chemistry book for the library, the first chemical and the first equipment. There was nothing, really nothing. I learned a lot from those days. After that I would treasure and cherish what I had, and not take things for granted. When you work under hardship, then you appreciate how good it is when you have more resources.

I usually worked long hours, and I usually worked seven days a week. But I really enjoyed it. Afterwards, when I had kids, I usually stayed at home on Sundays.

I enjoy both teaching and research, and I feel that they go hand in hand. I always enjoy students asking questions, because the simplest questions are the ones that are most difficult to answer. They make you think deeper into the subject so you can try to better present it to the student. Through these closed loops of teaching and learning cycles, you also upgrade yourself.

I want my students to be creative, adventurous, rigorous, self-motivated, to continue to upgrade themselves, be capable of life-long self-learning, and to aim high and dream big. I told each one of them that when they graduate, they must have discoveries that they are proud of and that are iconic to them, so that I can also proudly tell the younger students that they were the first person to open up this area in the lab.

Science is all about being open to criticism

I always challenge my students when they come to me with their findings. How did you measure that? Are you sure there’s no artifact? And some students who are new to the group may feel a little bit offended, because they say ‘you just don’t trust us’. I say no, when you are doing research, you should be very robust to challenges. I always tell my students not to be overly defensive. Science is all about being open to criticism, different ideas and different ways of thinking.

I correct my students’ final year projects, dissertations, theses or even internship reports very seriously, both in terms of the science and the writing. They have to give me the double-sided print copy with two pages per side. I will then have to go through each and every chapter three or four times. When I look at a text I can immediately spot if there is an extra space there, or that the font size is smaller by 0.5 even for a comma or period. It’s crazy, I was born to be able to do that. I’m a perfectionist, I really want to hold on to the standards. I just want the work to be free of errors.

I think publishing now is getting more transparent. Some journals now, when they inform the reviewer what decision they have made, attach the other reviewers’ comments. Some journals will also publish all the reviews. And this is how we can learn, because you might see somebody raising a question or concern you might not have thought about. It really helps science to grow, improve and upgrade. If young people are keen to be more rigorous, they should read these published reviews. They should also learn to analyse and judge if what was said is right or wrong. Not only the students, even faculty members could learn a lot.

Chemistry is a very creative subject. A supportive environment is very important. I think start-up packages should ensure that for the first few years, a researcher doesn’t need to spend so much time trying to find money. They should have a very stable environment for them to really do research.

When I started my career, people could focus more on doing science than nowadays. Now we have to be more accountable, which I totally agree with because we are using public money. But sometimes it’s going to an extreme – you have to write so many proposals and progress reports. People are spending a lot of time on all this paperwork, rather than spending more time discussing science, brainstorming with students or working with the students in the lab.

In my free time I usually read papers! I enjoy spending time with friends, with family, eating out or having a beer or wine in a very relaxing environment. I used to be a badminton player. And I like cats. I used to own a cat, but now I’m too busy.