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Doing what comes naturally

Ed Yeung receives American Chemical Society Chromatography

Ed Young uses a microscope and a charge-coupled device camera for single molecule detection research.

Edward S. Yeung, director of Ames Laboratory's Chemical and Biological Sciences Program and an ISU Distinguished Professor, has been selected for the prestigious American Chemical Society Award in Chromatography. Yeung, and fellow ACS award winner Klaus Ruedenberg (see story on page 5) will be honored during a special awards ceremony at the ACS national meeting in Orlando, April 9, 2002.

The selection of Yeung to receive the ACS Award in Chromatography speaks to the enormous and impressive volume of research he has produced in the area of chemical separations. To be nominated for this award, the individual must have made an outstanding contribution to the field of chromatography, with particular consideration given to development of new methods.

"It is significant to note that Dr. Yeung's work has contributed to both our fundamental understanding of chromatography and to the way chromatography is being practiced today," said Michael J. Sepaniak, head of the Department of Chemistry at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. A former student of Yeung's, Sepaniak nominated him for the ACS award.

Among his many research accomplishments leading to the ACS Award in Chromatography, Yeung pioneered the method of multiplexed capillary electrophoresis and in 1995 incorporated the technique into a fluorescence-based DNA sequencer that dramatically reduced the time needed to gather information on an individual's genetic makeup.

Yeung recently combined the technique with absorption detection, creating a new technology that can gather data on a much wider range of compounds. His revamped technology relies on the amount of ultraviolet light molecules in a sample absorb to determine their type and quantity, and so eliminates the need to attach optical tags to those compounds that don't fluoresce naturally.

In other work, Yeung has developed a method to track the movement of single molecules in solution, a breakthrough that ultimately may have great implications within the fields of medicine, catalysis and biotechnology. With this approach, Yeung was able to elucidate the fundamental mechanisms of chromatography with unprecedented detail.

Yeung has received many awards for his research, including the ACS Fisher Award in Analytical Chemistry in 1994 and the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry Award in Chemical Instrumentation in 1987. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2001, he received his fourth R&D 100 Award, which was further recognized as the Editor's Choice for "the most promising new technology."

Chemistry has always interested Yeung, who grew up in Hong Kong. After graduating from high school, he came to the U.S., earning a bachelor's degree in 1968 from Cornell University. Four years later, at the age of 24, he earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of California (Berkeley). It was his interest in laser spectroscopy that brought him to Ames that same year as an instructor of analytical chemistry at Iowa State University and an assistant chemist at Ames Laboratory. He's been at Iowa State and the Ames Lab ever since.

"It is easy to do something that is fun," he says of his distinguished career in chemistry, "and it's been something that comes naturally to me ... most of the time." He adds that it's a bonus to enjoy something "that also pays one's salary."

In what may have been a sign of things to come, he became interested in chromatography through a conversation with Ames Lab Senior Scientist and ISU Distinguished Professor Jim Fritz, who won the ACS Chromatography award in 1976. "I found out there are challenging unresolved issues with chromatographic mechanisms and chromatographic instrumentation," Yeung said.

Finding answers to those unresolved issues has been the motivating force behind Yeung's work. As he explains it, the answers have come by breaking a complex problem into a series of questions, then trying to take a novel approach in answering those questions.

"In general, scientific research starts with simple questions on how or why things work in a certain way," Yeung says. "Then, specific studies are designed to answer such questions. Satisfaction comes when one is proven correct in proposing the initial approach or hypothesis, i.e., getting the right answer."

"The biggest challenges are trying to go against conventional theories or standard approaches and trying to develop something different, be it an idea or an instrument," he explains. "Scientists are, in general, conservative, and many of our projects would probably have gone unfunded if the exact plans were laid out in front of (grant committee) referees." Not everything comes as easily to Yeung as solutions to complex chemistry problems. For example, he points to two of his favorite diversions.

"I play the violin," he says and adds that he enjoys art rather than creating it. "These pursuits are far more difficult to me than chemistry. Perhaps that's why I immerse myself in them whenever I can."

Though natural talent has its place, Yeung appreciates the value of hard work in overcoming obstacles. His music has required that kind of dedication and discipline. "In science, music or art, more advances come from hard work than sheer talent," he says.

He also admits that there's a certain amount of luck involved in making scientific discoveries.

"Science often is opportunistic, and it is hard to say what will be discovered next," Yeung says about where his research may take him. "For now, I will settle for learning to play the violin better."


by Kerry Gibson


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