Striking gold with buckyballs

Sometimes people are a product of their surroundings, and sometimes these surroundings can be auspiciously beneficial.

Lai-Sheng Wang, recipient of the Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award for Research, Scholarship and Arts, was a high school student when China’s cultural revolution ended. 

“Had that not happened, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” said Wang. “I would have become a carpenter!”

Once in college, Wang decided he wanted to become a university teacher, but it was not until he got to UC Berkeley to work on his Ph.D. in physical chemistry that he realized being a professor means doing research as well.

Happily, he has an affinity for it. Since arriving in the Tri-Cities to work for WSU (with a joint appointment with the nearby Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) in 1993, Wang has published more than 250 articles and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, his research on gold buckyballs, a cluster of 16 gold atoms that group in the shape of a cage, is garnering national and international attention.

“His groundbreaking work on gold buckyballs was featured in the New York Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Science News, Nature, C & E News and many scientific news media all over the world,” said Matthew McCluskey, associate professor and acting chair for the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Few people anywhere ever achieve such a high profile.” 

As a result of this and other such projects, Wang received the National Science Foundation Creativity Award in 2001, the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 and the Humboldt Research Award (from Germany) in 2006. He also was elected a fellow in the American Physical Society, which recognizes members in the top one-half of one percent who have made advances in knowledge through original research and publication.

“His solid reputation as a researcher and instructor has brought significant recognition not only to himself, but also to Washington State University,” said McCluskey. 

Despite the accolades from near and far, Wang is a bit overwhelmed by the Sahlin award.

“I’m surprised and extremely honored,” he said. “To be recognized by your own colleagues is the real prestige.”

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