Ten Minutes with Rainmaker Weiwei Xie
Weiwei Xie, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry, works on solid-state inorganic materials and has amassed a number of awards and recognitions in her four years at LSU, after completing postdoctoral research at Princeton. She received the Beckman Young Investigator award in 2018; was named a VIPEr Fellow in 2019 for helping to reshape inorganic chemistry education; and was just awarded a five-year Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation for her work on new superconductors. Xie obtained her bachelor’s degree from Nankai University in China and her PhD from Iowa State University. She is now emerging as a leader in the design and discovery of quantum materials at LSU.
How did you first get inspired to study chemistry?
I liked chemistry in middle school and high school in China because I really liked my first chemistry teacher; she was wonderful. I was very shy but managed to do a good job and the experiments were very, very fun. We had chemistry Olympic games that she trained me for, and she really liked teaching, which inspired me to also try to inspire my students—all students. I think I was the only girl to choose a chemistry major where I went to college.
Why did you choose inorganic chemistry over organic chemistry?
So, organic chemistry requires a lot of synthesis; experiments in the lab where you’re making molecules, something like a medicine. And honestly, I was never very good at doing a lot of chemistry experiments because my hands are always shaking. However, I still liked chemistry, so when I left China to come to the US to do my PhD, I changed direction. I chose to work with Professor Gordon Miller at Iowa State with a focus on understanding how materials form and can be stabilized; that’s the question we try to answer, and it’s really interesting.
“Doing chemistry research is not that hard. As chemists, we’re writing formulas everywhere and we can communicate through formulas even though I might not understand what you’re talking about.”
At Princeton, I studied material properties in depth, such as magnetism and electric properties. I learned a lot from my postdoc advisor Professor Robert Cava about connecting physics and chemistry to design new quantum materials. I started using a chemistry mind to interpret physical properties and design new materials, making new superconductors. Here at LSU, I’m still working on this, seeing how superconductors interplay with each other.
How did you transition from Iowa State University to Princeton?
I met Robert Cava as a second-year grad student at Iowa State. I didn’t really know who he was, but he was so nice and taught me a lot. I later learned that he was kind of famous. Anyway, he was extremely nice and patient, and really motivated me. Even as a grad student, he helped me with scientific problems. He sent me long emails, explaining things in detail to me. I really appreciated his mentoring. He made me feel like I’m a genius in science, even though he probably had thought about all of these ideas a long time ago. He always encourages me to try new things based on my imaginations.
Before then, I also very much appreciated my PhD advisor, Professor Miller. As a foreigner from a different cultural background, going from an Eastern culture to a completely Western culture, he helped me a lot with English and the different ways of thinking. Doing chemistry research is not that hard. As chemists, we’re writing formulas everywhere and we can communicate through formulas even though I might not understand what you’re talking about. I have a strong Chinese accent, but my advisor gave me a good transition that made me not scared at all. I started to feel confident once I saw that most people are friendly and kind.
How did you come to LSU?
When I came for my first interview, I had never been to Louisiana. “What’s this place?” But it was November and so warm, I immediately liked it here, and all of the faculty at the LSU chemistry department. Carol Taylor was the chair and Cynthia Peterson was so nice. I saw that people were like family and taking care of each other, that it wasn’t super competitive—we could be excellent without the arrogance.
When I came back for my second interview, I brought my daughter Felicity and husband Tuo Wang, who in an assistant professor here, too; we’re in the same department. We did our PhD at Iowa State together and he came to LSU one year after me because he wanted to finish his postdoc at MIT. But once we came here together, I rejected all of the other interviews from other universities. “Don’t waste your money hosting me.” We were going to LSU.
Other than Carol and Cynthia, I have really enjoyed working with my colleagues like Matt Chambers; we always discuss some interesting scientific questions and collaborate. Moreover, the female faculty in the chemistry department—Carol Taylor, Jayne Garno, Graça Vicente, Donghui Zhang, Megan Macnaughtan, Revati Kumar, and Noémie Elgrishi—are wonderful and we support each other. While our kids play on the playground, we talk about research. We’re raising our kids and talking about science together, working on proposals together.
What are you working on right now?
I’m continuing to work on superconductors. Usually, magnetism kills superconductors, but we’re working on ways to use a robust structure to host the superconductivity and magnetism together and make them coexist. Everything in this field is brand new; a new chemical design philosophy, and we haven’t given it a name yet. I’m working on an earth-grade ferromagnet, which is critical for things like devices and aerospace. Most often, rare earth elements are used, but we’re trying to make new materials at room temperature without rare earth elements, which are, as you understand, rare—and expensive. Instead, we’re now using 14% manganese, and manganese is very cheap.
We’re also starting to study materials at extreme conditions, like high pressure. This is something I want to develop over the next few years. For now, we’re not worrying about making materials into devices, we’re just focused on making the materials and making sure they’re stable.
Before I got the Beckman Young Investigator award, I still hesitated whether I wanted to stay in this field because researching superconductivity is very risky. It’s hard to find new superconductors, and there are no rules. But these materials are important and very necessary. The awards I’ve received have told me, “Go! Don’t worry. We believe you. You have our support.”
Finally, how do you feel about being a Rainmaker?
I want to thank all of our chemistry colleagues for their support. My success is not only for me, it’s thanks to our department and also my physics colleagues; all of the senior professors who let me do anything I want: Carol Taylor, Andy Maverick, Donghui Zhang, Leslie Butler, George Stanley, Graça Vincente, John Pojman, my physics colleagues like Michael Cherry, John DiTusa, Ward Plummer, Rongying Jin, David Young, and Jiandi Zhang. I would like to give my special thanks to Dean Cynthia Peterson, she’s really my role model, and Professor Sam Bentley. Without them, my career couldn’t go so smooth. I take 65 percent of the credit; 35 percent is their contribution.
The Rainmaker Awards are given each year by the Office of Research & Economic Development, Campus Federal Credit Union, and the Council on Research to faculty who show outstanding research, scholarship, and creative activity for their respective ranks and discipline. The awards recognize both sustained and continuing work, as well as the impact that work has had on faculty members, departments, and our academic community. There are three award categories: Emerging Scholar, Mid-Career Scholar, and Senior Scholar. For each category, an award is offered for a faculty member in the area of Arts, Humanities, Social and Behavioral Sciences, and one in the area of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Emerging Scholar Award
Mid-Career Scholar Award
Senior Scholar Award
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development