After 40-Year Love Affair with Chemistry, Prof. Chung-Yuan Mou Looks Back on His Academic Path

Upon graduating from the NTU Department of Chemistry in 1970, Prof. Chung-Yuan Mou headed directly to the Department of Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri to pursue his PhD, which he obtained within five years. When he thinks back to the NTU campus at that time, Prof. Mou says with a smile that NTU looked quite like the countryside then. He notes that, instead of being filled with the numerous buildings and bustling campus life we see today, the space between the College of Social Sciences and the Main Library was occupied by green rice paddies.

Self-Motivated Pursuit of Knowledge

“I began with an inner desire for knowledge and I’m still pursuing it to this day.” With a serious look in his eyes, Prof. Mou recalls that a large bookstore selling pirated copies of books was located near the campus when he was a student. He would frequent the store after class in search of books that piqued his interest.

“Over those four years, I used the money I earned from tutoring to buy more than 200 books in their original languages, and I read virtually all of them in detail.” Mou quips that he was unlike students these days, who, when asked to purchase a foreign language book for class, bargain over the price of the book and think they won’t necessarily read the book even if they do buy it.

Continuing his light-hearted teasing, Prof. Mou says that when he was studying at the Department of Chemistry, all of his classmates were highly talented and came from the most elite schools in Taiwan. The department enjoyed a vibrant atmosphere of academic research in those days, and the students would frequently discuss research topics and make progress together. With a hint of sympathy, he concedes that, “Nowadays, there are too many things that can distract students. It’s not like the old days when the only entertainment we had was going to the movies.”

Chemistry’s Attraction Lies in Limitless Creativity

Prof. Mou dove headlong into the world of chemistry as a student. He never expected at the time that he would end up spending decades following his passion. While most people consider chemistry to be a dry discipline that is difficult to understand, Mou sees it as a rich and intriguing academic field. Even now, he looks forward to exploring innumerable unknown synthetic chemical compounds.

“Chemistry can create an unlimited variety of molecules and materials,” says Prof. Mou, growing passionate when talking about his true love. He explains that chemists continuously create new things, but that this does not happen haphazardly. Rather, it happens by working with an established theoretical foundation;accordingly, chemists recombine and rearrange various elements according to their wishes.

Mou smiles as he offers another perspective on chemistry, “Chemistry is very useful.” By inventing an amazing new material or creating a drug for the treatment of cancer, chemists sometimes make enormous contributions to society.

Capricious in Youth, Pragmatic with Age

At the same time, researchers are bound to encounter both minor and major setbacks as they follow their research paths.

When asked whether he had ever faced frustrations, Prof. Mou thinks for a moment before slowly replying, “Failure is like this: When we make something that differs from what we anticipated, there are two types of response.The first type of response is to feel disheartened and wonder why we got B when we meant to produce A; the second type of response is ‘Producing B is not bad either.’” Mou releases a hearty laugh upon making this statement.

Prof. Mou’s goals have changed over the years. Filled with a capricious ambition in his youth, Mou wanted to understand the reactions of all chemical formulas and give the world a great theory. After turning 40, however, he began to think about more pragmatic matters and switched from theory to experimental research.

Changing Path at 40, from the Theoretical to Experimental

“Around 1990, the department wanted to move its laboratories from the Chemistry Building to Shih-Liang Hall, and suddenly a physical chemistry lab came available that was more challenging and nobody wanted. I took advantage of the opportunity and commandeered this lab,” relates Prof. Mou. He cancelled a few old experiments while initiating several new ones and, after three years of conducting experiments, he published a physical chemistry book based on his work in the lab.

40-Year Career, Calls for Courage

Having reached his 40thyear at the Department of Chemistry this year, Prof. Moutells his students, “Things work themselves out naturally in the end.” He explains that this common saying implies a test of one’s courage and judgment, adding that, by courage, he means the courage to take chances, take on responsibility, and admit mistakes.

A Quick Q&A with Prof. Chung-Yuan Mou of the Department of Chemistry

Q: Which people have had a profound impact on you?

A: During the time I was pursuing my PhD in the United States, the attitude of my advisor Ronald Lovett toward scholarship and conducting research influenced me immensely. Ronald is focused intensely on research. He would discuss issues related to scholarship with me everyday. We talked about all variety of things about conducting research. Ronald is a very nice person, but he has extremely stringent standards when it comes to logical thought.

Q: What is the greatest accomplishment of your 40-year career as an NTU faculty member?

A: I have made many good friends, whether they were students or academic friends I met at international symposiums. Even now, students I taught in the past sometimes return to see me. I also attend wedding banquets of my former students every year. Especially at my age, to still have young people who want to come and visit me leaves me feeling highly gratified.

Q: Are there any words of wisdom you would like to share with our readers?

A: Things work themselves out naturally in the end. When you fail, there will be many times that you think a disaster has arrived. However, things actually do solve themselves in the end most of the time.

Q: If a graduate student encounters a bottleneck while conducting an experiment, what attitude would you suggest for overcoming the situation?

(Prof. Mou responds following a moment of silence.)

A: Versatility and multiple talents! It’s like painting a wall. You must not have just one brush, but the ability to handle multiple brushes. If you are unable to continue painting this wall, then change to a new wall. You must know when you should make a turn and find a new direction in which to develop that is more appropriate for you.

Highlights of Prof. Chung-Yuan Mou

Academics and career
1970: Bachelor’s degree, Department of Chemistry, National Taiwan University
1975: PhD, Department of Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
1975-1977: Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Oregon
1978-1982: Associate Professor, National Taiwan University
1982-present: Professor, National Taiwan University
2004-2007: Chair, Department of Chemistry, National Taiwan University
2012-2014: Deputy Minister, National Science Council (now the Ministry of Science and Technology), Executive Yuan

Honors and awards
1986, 1995, 1997: Outstanding Research Award, National Science Council
1997-2000: Outstanding Scholar Award, Foundation for the Advancement of Outstanding Scholarship
2000-2003: National Professorship, Ministry of Education
2002: Academic Achievement Award, Chinese Chemical Society
2007: Cozzarelli Prize, National Academy of Sciences, USA
2007-2012: University Chair Professor, National Taiwan University
2008: Scientific Chair Professor, Far Eastern Y. Z. Hsu Science and Technology Memorial Foundation
2011: Chair Professor, Chang Chao-Ting Memorial Foundation
2013: TWAS Prize in Chemistry, The World Academy of Sciences
2016: Academician, Academia Sinica

Research interests
Statistical mechanics: supercooled water
Nanoaperture molecular sieves and their applications
Heterogeneous catalysis
Biomedical applications of mesoporous silica

Original work:Physical Chemistry Lab(co-authored with Tze-Jeng Hsu)
Translated works:The Periodic Table, Andrei Sakharov’s Memoirs(co-authored with Huai-Chao Cheng),Andrei Sakharov’s Manuscripts and Letters (co-authored with Huai-Chao Cheng), The Dreams of Reason (co-authored with Chung-Hsien Liang)