Chinese University of Hong Kong BSc ’69; LSU PhD ‘74
Senior Research Chemist and Project Leader National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST)
Winnie Kwai-Wah Wong-Ng was born in Mainland China and moved to Hong Kong with her family when she was two years old. She describes herself as an ambitious child and says, “I wanted to have as high an education as I could, even though my family could not afford it.” Her undergraduate major was Inorganic Chemistry and they used a textbook by LSU Professors Clyde Day and Joel Selbin. She minored in Physical Chemistry.
In 1969, some alumni of US universities formed The American University Club of Hong Kong, with the goal of funding travel, so that current students might have the same opportunities that they had experienced in the US. One of the three inaugural awardees was Winnie. She had been accepted by LSU but was financially unable to realize her dream. The family of a friend loaned her the money for her first semester of tuition and she was on her way to Baton Rouge! She was delighted to learn that Clyde Day was Director of Graduate Studies. After a strong performance in her qualifying exams, she was given a Teaching Assistantship. She joined the research group of Professor Steve Watkins and ultimately completed a dissertation titled, “Crystal and Molecular Structures of Three Novel Compounds.” Those three compounds were platinacyclobutenone, phenylsuccinimide, and phenyltetramethylnitronylnitroxide.
Dr Wong-Ng says, “Professor Watkins has taught me nearly everything I know about crystallography, both theory and practical laboratory work. In addition to his guidance as a graduate advisor, he also provided continuous support and friendship later throughout my career.” Dr Wong-Ng remains appreciative of the rigorous courses and research program in the Department; they provided the springboard for her scientific career. She recalls a lot of camaraderie in the laboratory, including pranks to which their advisor was not immune. Amongst her fond memories of LSU, she recalls house-sitting for the Watkins when they spent a summer at Brookhaven.
After her nurturing years at LSU, Winnie spent six years at the University of Toronto, affiliated with Professor Stanley Nyburg, first as a postdoc and subsequently as a Research Associate Professor and Lecturer. She worked on “complex structure problems as well as theoretical studies of intermolecular forces, including software development.” She is particularly proud of recognizing that the non-spherical nature of dispersion-repulsion forces could be used to explain the crystal structure of dichlorine.
A turning point in Winnie’s career was a return to the USA in 1981. It was a difficult time to secure a faculty or research position in Canada and she applied for a Critical Review Scientist role with the non-profit organization JCPDS (now the International Centre for Diffraction Data, ICDD). During her two years at the JCPDS headquarters in Swarthmore, PA, she critically reviewed 40,000 diffraction patterns, improved database software and helped create a computerized database. She was a pioneer in these fields, with powder diffraction undergoing a renaissance at that time, and software and database development being new frontiers. Subsequently, Winnie became a Research Associate with JSPDS at the National Bureau of Standards where she was impressed by the “beautiful campus … and amazed at the potential research opportunities.” When the associateship drew to a close she was hired into a permanent research staff member position in the Ceramics Division. Today she is a research chemist in the Materials for Energy and Sustainability Development Group, Materials for Measurement Science Division of the Material Measurement Laboratory (MML). For more about her long, productive and distinguished career at NIST, refer to the article on her induction into the College of Science’s Hall of Distinction in 2020.
In terms of advice to current graduate students, Dr Wong-Ng says, “work hard, build self-confidence, to be perseverant, build strong personal and professional networks, and above all, set career goals.” She notes that, “among nearly 8 billion people in this world, there are only a small fraction that we actually encounter, so each one that we meet means something in our lives.” She has no “what ifs” along her career path and would repeat each twist and turn if she had her time again. Still excited about her science, all these years later, Winnie says she enjoys going to work every day and “the opportunity to work on challenging scientific problems in collaboration with my colleagues, both at NIST and internationally, also as a mentor.”
-Profile contributed by Carol M. Taylor