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March 25, 2002
Volume 80, Number 12
CENEAR 80 12 pp. 28
ISSN 0009-2347
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At 31, Bell Labs's Zhenan Bao sets a strong pace for young women to follow

In late 2000, scientists from Bell Labs and E Ink Corp. wrote their entry in the science and technology history books with their creation of the world's first all-plastic electronic paper. The new medium bends like paper and reads like paper, yet can be refreshed and altered like a computer screen.

One of the team members was Zhenan Bao, distinguished member of the technical staff at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J. Her contribution to the project was the development of high-performance polymer semiconductors, which enabled the fabrication of the first all-printed plastic transistors that are used in the electronic paper.

The team was honored for the achievement through the American Chemical Society's 2002 Award for Team Innovation (C&EN, Jan. 7, page 34).

Bao, however, is currently working on a second, larger contribution to science: At age 31, she has become a role model for young women chemists by excelling in her field.

Her research objective, as she describes it, "is to adopt a chemical approach to controlling molecular interaction, self-organization, and electronic and optical properties." Her work in organic materials has resulted in landmark discoveries in high-performance organic semiconductors, including the first high-performance, air-stable n-channel semiconductor.

Organic materials are useful as active components for transistors, light-emitting diodes, lasers, and solar cells, and Bao believes her work could play an important role when the size of these devices shrinks to the nanometer scale.

ACS is not the only organization to spot the shining star. Science chose her work on molecular-scale transistors as "The Breakthrough of 2001," and last year she received the "Best of the Best" R&D 100 Award. This year, the Royal Society of Chemistry will present Bao with its 2002 Beilby Prize & Medal. She holds five commercial patents and has more than 25 pending. She has also given more than 60 invited lectures and sits on the advisory board for Advanced Functional Materials.

The road to Murray Hill begins thousands of miles away. Born in Nanjing, China, in 1970, Bao is the daughter of two science professors at Nanjing University. Her father taught physics and her mother taught chemistry, and the pair introduced Bao to the world of science. They are still among her strongest influences and sources of support. "Even today, we spend hours talking on the phone about the research projects we are doing."

Bao followed her mother's lead and spent three years at Nanjing University as a chemistry major. In 1990, she transferred to the University of Illinois, Chicago. Six months later, the University of Chicago accepted her into its graduate program without completion of a bachelor's degree. What she did have, however, were two university awards for her exceptional work in chemistry from Nanjing.

Once her master's degree was completed in 1993, Bao began doctoral work in materials chemistry at the University of Chicago. "The person who first introduced me to the fascinating world of polymers and, more importantly, gave me the necessary training, was my Ph.D. thesis adviser, professor Luping Yu," she says. He taught her the proper approach to independent research and how to apply an interdisciplinary approach toward problem solving, skills that serve her well now.

womancelebrating 75 years of the acs women chemists
Shortly after graduation in 1995, Bao joined Bell Labs as a principal investigator in the polymer and organic materials department.

Bao's department is led by Elsa Reichmanis, who Bao now considers a mentor and role model. "Reichmanis exemplifies what a successful woman should be: director of materials research in Bell Labs, ACS president-elect, and a caring mother of four children," Bao says. "She has always encouraged me, and everyone else under her supervision, to be the best they can be."

Women in science--particularly young women--need to be confident, Bao says. "If you possess this confidence, you will learn from both the ups and the downs, and you will eventually get the results that exhilarate you." She adds, "Be persistent, never give up, and be optimistic."

Bao does not believe that she has encountered any gender-related obstacles during her own career, a fortune she credits to her Bell Labs colleagues, including Edwin A. Chandross, recently retired, "who has so often encouraged me and showered me with his wisdom." She does believe, however, that such obstacles could be overcome through open discussion and hard work.

There are certain advantages to being a female scientist, she adds, "such as how successful women tend to be more visible because there are fewer female scientists, and there are opportunities created specifically for women."

Her outlook for women in the sciences is positive, and she doesn't see any large challenges ahead. "On the contrary," she says, "I expect the issue of the scientist's gender to fade gradually into oblivion. And my sincere gratitude goes out to all the women who have actively worked to eliminate such gender-related issues, as they have made the path I am traveling much smoother."

This profile was written by C&EN Contributing Editor Kevin MacDermott, a former assistant editor in C&EN's ACS News Department.

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