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Imagine the Possibilities
 
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Dr. Wen Li was a 2012 recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
Posted Mon, 1/14/2013
 
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Dr. Wen Li, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Wayne State University, was a 2012 recipient of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which the White House describes as “the highest honor bestowed by the United States Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.”

The award, for one million dollars over five years, is aiding Dr. Li’s research on “studying the most exquisite details of chemical reactions,” he says. “Many things in everyday life come down to chemical reactions. In my lab, we study the motion of nuclei and electrons during such reactions. People have been studying the nuclear motion of chemical reactions for a while, but we are studying the electrons, which for a long time people considered too fast to study. There’s no technique, thus far, that can track down their motions. And that’s what my research program aims to do in the next few years.”

Li’s PECASE research is being funded by the Department of Defense. “They are interested in fundamental research,” Li says. “How do you control chemical reactions?” Answering that question, he says, “is the holy grail of chemical dynamics study.” In order to capture the movement of electrons, Li uses “ultrashort laser pulses,” which last a few hundred attoseconds. For sake of comparison, this is much less time than a nanosecond. “In order to capture something as fast as electrons, you need something equally fast,” Li says.

Now in his fourth year in the WSU Chemistry Department, Dr. Li credits the support he has received from colleagues in its Physical Chemistry division, in particular Dr. Arthur Suits and Dr. Berny Schlegel, and department chair Dr. Jim Rigby. He also credits the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which provided him with sufficient start-up money when he was hired to set up his lab and make the PECASE honor possible. “The college and the university invested in me,” Li says, “and it paid off.”

It’s an investment that would eventually lead Li to the White House. “We had an award ceremony first, with the director of the Office of Science and Technology. I was given an award by the director and by people from the Department of Defense.”

“The next day,” Li says, “we went to White House and met the President. It was a big party, and he was kind enough to take a photo with and talk to everyone.” Li and the other PECASE awardees were also given a private White House tour.

The first installment of the PECASE award money arrived in September. Li says that he “used it to purchase some critical equipment”—laser pulse measurement equipment—“and to support a post-doctoral and graduate student.”

“We are in the process of setting up the lab in a way that we can achieve our final goal,” Li says, “which is to provide a dynamic picture to the Department of Defense about how lasers interact with matter.”

College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
4841 Cass Avenue 2155 Old Main
Detroit, MI 48201
Phone: (313) 577-2515
Fax: (313) 577-9693
Website: www.clas.wayne.edu
Email: an8828@wayne.edu