The thought of not having access to a computer in today’s elementary classrooms would be hard to imagine. But in 1986, when Ning Fang was a fourth grader in China, there were only four computers in the entire school, and very few students were “qualified” to use them. Luckily Fang was one of them.
“They experimented with us to see how we could achieve new concepts and other things, and I ended up taking part in a lot of computer competitions,” says Fang, who remembers coming in second in a prestigious high school information olympics competition in his province.
Equal to his love of computers, however, was Fang’s interest in chemistry and mathematics, in which he excelled as a student and academic competitor. “I was lucky to be able to combine all of my strengths, which helped form the basis for my love of science.”
Fast forward 25 years to his present-day office in Hach Hall, Iowa State University’s chemistry building where Fang sits comfortably with not one, but two computers within arm’s reach. A research scientist at the Ames Laboratory and an assistant professor of Chemistry at Iowa State, Fang’s research focuses on chemical and biological discovery through novel optical imaging of single molecules. Although computers don’t hold quite the same sway over him they used to, they’re still “a critically important tool” to write the code for his imaging research.
Fang attended graduate school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where he majored in chemistry but minored, you might say, in snowboarding and skiing. “I achieved an advanced level in both,” chuckles Fang, who says he loved Vancouver so much that he spent six and a half years in graduate school. “It kind of delayed my graduation, but it was well worth it.”
Like many young people, Fang remembers back to a special moment that helped changed his life. It began with a conversation about college with his uncle, who happened to be a chemistry professor at a college in China.
“I was planning on majoring in computer science,” says Ning. “But when he found that I also loved chemistry, he suggested that I study chemistry and use the computer as my tool. He was very open minded and saw the future of research.”
Fang took his uncle’s advice and studied chemistry at China’s Xiamen University, with a double major in computer science. Upon graduation, he was accepted for graduate school at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where he majored in chemistry.
While in graduate school, Fang began focusing on chemical separations using traditional chemical analysis tools, such as capillary electrophoresis (CE), which he used to analyze the drug MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy. His research caught the eye of Ed Yeung, now a retired Ames Laboratory scientist and the inventor of multiplexed capillary electrophoresis (MCE), a chemical analysis device that’s considered the “gold standard” of DNA sequencing instrumentation.
“I met with Ed three times at conferences, and felt very lucky and proud to be able to speak with him at length each time,” says Fang.
It turns out Yeung also had reasons for the lengthy discussions because he eventually offered Fang the opportunity to be his postdoc at the Ames Lab and, ultimately, to take over his research program upon his retirement.
Since moving to Ames in 2006, life at Ames Lab and Iowa State has been a dizzying balancing act. Between his research, his duties as assistant professor, and raising a family, which consists of a five year old and a four month old, he has precious little free time. But, like many modern dads he spends some time playing with his five year old on an iPad, but not a computer….yet.
“My wife doesn’t want him to touch computers too early,” Fang explains.
~ by Steve Karsjen