A One in a Million Scientist

A One in a Million Scientist

Physicist Zhifeng Ren traveled a long and unlikely road to success

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Growing up the son of illiterate peasant farmers in the drought-racked Sichuan Province of China, Zhifeng Ren never thought he would live in a city - let alone become a scientist devising technology that may change the way people across the globe use computers, fly airplanes or get fresh drinking water.

Assoc. Prof. Zhifeng Ren (Physics): "Thirty years ago, I thought I would be a farmer. To get this opportunity was not an easy thing. I will work hard to get more and better work done, to make more devices to help people live better." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Today, as an associate professor of physics at Boston College, Ren is conducting research in carbon nanotechnology with potential applications in water desalinization, the manufacture of flat-screen TVs and computers, and sensors used to detect chemical weapons or to pilot planes in the fog. Colleagues have nicknamed him the "Million Dollar Man," reflecting the amount of grant funding he received last year.

Ren's work at BC has gained national attention this year, being cited in a White House report accompanying the launch of a National Nanotechnology Initiative, and in a recent article in Scientific American.

Ren overcame great odds on the road to becoming one of America's most promising young physicists. His Chinese farmer parents never learned to read or write. The youngest of their seven children, he was the only one to go to college. During a severe four-year drought in the late 1970s, he and his schoolmates had little food or water, subsisting largely on corn paste.

His scholarly talents won him entry to a local technical college and, eventually, a coveted place at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, marking him among China's best and brightest. At the time he received his doctorate in physics in 1990, he said, less than 2,000 Chinese out of a nation of 1.2 billion were studying for doctorates of any sort.

"I've come a long, long way," he said, "and it's been a very hard journey."

Ren, who arrived at Boston College last year from the State University of New York at Buffalo, part of a wave of young scientists who are making the BC physics department a national center for novel electronic materials, is today counted among the pioneers in the emerging field of nanotechnology.

He has devised a carbon "nanotube" as small as 1/5,000th the size of a human hair and which, viewed through the strongest of electron microscopes, looks like a tiny version of the Washington Monument. Grown by the billions in microscopic "forests" of carbon substance stronger than steel, these obelisk-shaped nanotubes have a seemingly boundless range of uses.

Potential applications include filtration systems for converting seawater to drinking water, flat-panel displays used in television and computer screens, and long-lived lightweight batteries for mobile phones, digital cameras and other electronic devices.

Ren is currently working on a sensor that would protect soldiers by detecting poison gas within seconds of its release by an enemy. With BC physics colleague Prof. Krzysztof Kempa, he envisions nanotubes being used in ultra-high-frequency electromagnetic sensors that test car emissions or allow planes to take off and land in zero visibility.

He and Kempa have joined in an off-campus partnership, the Watertown-based NanoLab Inc., which will produce and market products stemming from their research at Boston College.

"The most exciting thing is making material that cannot be seen with bare eyes, that can only be seen through an electron microscope at the highest magnification, but that has amazing properties that could ultimately change the daily life of human beings," he said.

"As a scientist, you want to work on something that could make life better," said Ren, who lives in Newton with his wife, Ruiping He, and their two sons, Chao He and Bush Ren.

"Thirty years ago, I thought I would be a farmer," he said. "To get this opportunity was not an easy thing. I will work hard to get more and better work done, to make more devices to help people live better."


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