Associate Professor of Chemistry Chia-Kuang “Frank” Tsung, whose research in nanotechnology offered potential pathways for solving the world’s energy crisis and battling cancer, died on January 5 from complications due to COVID-19. He was 44.
Dr. Tsung, who joined the Boston College faculty in 2010, cultivated a research program that lay at the interface between chemistry, nanotechnology, and materials science. He focused on photocatalytic materials for energy conversion and heterogeneous catalysts for energy-synthesis reactions—research that could lead to the development of high-performance nano-catalysts, a possible solution to the global energy shortage.
Lauding Dr. Tsung’s achievements in research, colleagues also cited his contributions as a teacher and mentor, and his collegiality within the department and the larger University.
“In addition to being an accomplished scientist, Frank was an excellent teacher, a compassionate adviser, and a kind and generous colleague,” said Vanderslice Professor of Chemistry Dunwei Wang, the department chair. “His passion for science and education has been and will remain an inspiration for us all. We'll forever miss him.”
“Frank was a gifted teacher, a creative scientist, a generous collaborator, and an integral contributor to our physical chemistry group,” said Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gregory Kalscheur, S.J. “He brought energy, enthusiasm, and a positive spirit to his service as the Chemistry Department's graduate program director, and that same energy and enthusiasm characterized all of my interactions with him. His presence in the life of the department and the University community will be deeply missed.”
Dr. Tsung was among a team of BC chemists that developed a tandem catalytic system to efficiently convert carbon dioxide to methanol. Describing their project in the journal Chem last summer, Dr. Tsung and colleagues said the method could be applied to other tandem catalytic processes, allowing more efficient access to alternative fuels, commodity chemicals, and valuable pharmaceutical products.
The team drew its inspiration from the biological machinery in cells, which use multicomponent chemical reactions with great efficiency, he noted.
Dr. Tsung also was involved in developing a nano-scale cage of chemical bonds that served as a “smart” drug delivery mechanism to fight cancer and other illnesses. Seeking to improve the work of drugs that fight cancer and other diseases, researchers had sought to exploit the advantages of nanotechnology, in this case a nano-scale metal organic framework, or MOF. These frameworks have proven useful in certain functions, but had demonstrated instability in the body’s watery physiology, Dr. Tsung said in a 2014 interview with Boston College Chronicle.
He and Associate Professor of Chemistry Eranthie Weerapana created a framework to effectively transport the drug through the body and deliver it to target cells. Their nanosphere was able to overcome significant challenges—some drugs fail to fully penetrate cell membranes, and/or erode before they find their targets, requiring increased dosages, which are expensive and can produce unwanted side effects in patients.
“We were very excited to see the results,” said Dr. Tsung. “We always want our solutions to work, but to see our organic-based drug delivery system attack and kill cancer cells in our lab tests was extremely gratifying. We know there is much work to be done, but we’re excited about the potential in this advance.”
“In addition to being an accomplished scientist, Frank was an excellent teacher, a compassionate adviser, and a kind and generous colleague. His passion for science and education has been and will remain an inspiration for us all. We'll forever miss him.”
In another project, Dr. Tsung and his lab achieved a breakthrough in controlling a typically stubborn method of catalysis. Scientists had been looking for ways to exert greater selectivity in heterogeneous catalysis in an effort to expand its application and extend “green chemistry” benefits of reduced byproducts and waste. The Tsung team developed a nanostructure capable of regulating chemical reactions thanks to a thin, porous skin capable of precisely filtering molecules based on their size or chemical make-up.
“The idea is to make a smarter catalyst,” said Dr. Tsung, in an interview with the BC Office of University Communications. He explained that by using the nanostructure, “we can make these pores very precisely, just like your skin or like the membrane surrounding a cell. We can change their composition and chemical properties in order to accept or reject certain types of reactions. That is a level of control chemists in a variety of fields are eager to see nurtured and refined.”
A native of Taiwan, Dr. Tsung traced the inspiration for his career path to a childhood achievement: earning a bronze medal in a national elementary school science fair.
“It was definitely one of the major events that led me to decide on science,” he said in a 2016 Chronicle interview. “It’s pretty amazing that one experience can have such a significant impact on the course of your life.”
Dr. Tsung sought to instill a similar level of enthusiasm for science in young people, college-age and younger. In 2016, he was among the BC faculty members leading teams from the University at the country’s largest science showcase, the fourth biennial USA Science & Engineering Festival, Expo and Book Fair, held in Washington, DC. At the event, the delegation—the first from the University to participate in the fair—joined academic and private-sector researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates from across the United States in presenting hands-on exhibits of research, inventions, and other scientific highlights to showcase the world of science to hundreds of thousands of K-12 students.
“It’s very exciting,” Dr. Tsung told Chronicle. “I hope to help build momentum for these students to help them enjoy science more.”
Dr. Tsung earned a bachelor’s degree from National Sun Yat-sen University and a doctorate from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Prior to BC, he worked was a post-doctoral fellow and mentor of undergraduate research interns at the University of California-Berkeley.
He is survived by his sister, Frances Tsung.
University Communications | January 2021