Chemist of the Month
Dr Fei Liu
Fei Liu is the Chemist of the Month for July 2021. She is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Molecular Sciences, Macquarie University, working on proteomics and catalysis. Her passion for chemistry stemmed in part from wanting to be different from her physicist father, and enjoying being an academic who can juggle both teaching and research commitments, valuing her engagement with young people. Having grown up and educated entirely in the United States, she feels right at home in Sydney, spending her entire career to-date at Macquarie University and finding the time to appreciate the Australian natural environment through her endurance in cycling and running activities.
Interview conducted by William Li.
WL: A pleasure to interview you, another Macquarie University academic. How long have you been a RACI Member?
FL: I joined probably around 2005. That was roughly when I started my position here at Macquarie University. I remember being recommended to join, possibly by Danny (Wong). After hearing it being the peak body for chemists in Australia, I joined quite quickly.
WL: What motivated your interest in science? Surely something got you into chemistry, not just because somebody told you to do so!
FL: Interesting question. When I was a child, I was given a lot of books on science; just reading on stuff like how things work, which started the interest early on. My father is a physicist, so I think I chose chemistry so I don’t have to be a physicist!
WL: Ahhh! What an interesting choice! So you just don’t want to be like your dad!
FL: But I always wanted to be a scientist! I do enjoy conversations with my father on physics. I thought that chemistry is very interesting in that you have the ability to both understand and change / make something new. But in general, I think scientists like to understand how the world works and science, as a field, has this unique ability to self-correct, which may not always happen, but often does. As a scientist, you can ask different questions to raise the chances of progressing with knowledge. I’m not sure why scientists are like that, but it seems to be quite common.
WL: In chemistry, it’s all about change and how you make molecules, mixing it up in different ways and finding out what sort of properties you can get from it, that can expend our knowledge or be used to solve some of the global problems that we have today.
FL: That’s the thing about chemistry, which has some logic behind it that I like. It is also quite open-minded in many ways. Having a hypothesis of how it should work doesn’t mean it’ll work that way. Quite often, we think we’re going to make a molecule this way and it ends up being made in another way. I think the attraction is the ability to make a choice and follow through a plan, while having the flexibility and freedom to change it.
WL: That’s a good point to make on plans. So how did you go through your education and how you got to where you are today?
FL: Another interesting question! My family emigrated to the United States when I was young and so I had my formative years there. I went through what was their private education system, including undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training. Then I started here at Macquarie University in the early 2000s when I got bored living in the States and at the time there was a bit of a research funding crunch, so I thought about looking at other countries, and Macquarie had a proteomics centre, the first of its kind in the world. With strong interest in that field, I started a position in the then-Chemistry Department.
WL: Let’s not get started with all those department name changes over the years!
FL: Yes, quite a few changes. It’s now called the Department of Molecular Sciences.
WL: That’s a pretty interesting name that they use to group chemists with other scientists, like physicists.
FL: The Department doesn’t have a conventional collection of academics like a traditional chemistry school. What I like about here is that I’m just below the floor of the Australian Proteome Analysis Facility, which has a range of mass spectrometry instruments for protein chemistry research that my group and I do. So it really has been convenient to have this level of expertise right at your fingertips, helping my multidisciplinary work a lot. I also do some chemically driven, basic research, which doesn’t have any applications in biology. My group is interested in looking to regulate routine chemical catalysis starting from a small molecule-based system. If you look at nature’s catalysis, it’s highly regulated, not just complex. In chemistry, we’re very good at making a process happen, though not so good in controlling time in a reactive system, like trying to do multiple things at once, so lots of interesting chemistry to be discovered with respect to time, not just space.
WL: Quite interesting chemistry you do, not just proteomics, but also measurement using mass spectrometry.
FL: I do rely on collaborators coming out of the facility to help with the technical side of things. I make molecules which can interrogate cellular systems, but the analysis part of it requires advanced mass spectrometry and data science coming from my collaborators’ expertise.
WL: Has covid-19 impacted on your work in any way?
FL: Interestingly, we have had minimal impact, despite the restrictions coming in and work slowing down as a result, but we never stopped our work. With the restrictions, the desk-based work was done at home, while we came into the labs only if necessary.
WL: You’ve been at Macquarie University for some time now. So how are you finding your career so far and where do you see yourself from here?
FL: I’m not bored yet! My academic job is not a 9-5 thing but intensive, with a huge demand on my time. I do teaching and research, and I do enjoy this balance of being able to teach and also run a research group. I think these two come hand-in-hand and not opposing each other; some people might have the opinion that they may distract each other, but they are two sides of the same coin. I really enjoy interacting with students, and one of the most rewarding aspects of being an academic is having this very rare opportunity to constantly engage with young and active people who come in with fresh minds and fresh thinking. It keeps my mind open and energised. As an academic you also have a lot of choices - if you want to, you can find different pathways of value creation; you can do basic research, translational research and commercialisation by starting a company - we enjoy doing that equally. It’s important to experience the full pipeline. So far, it’s been interesting and I enjoy my academic work. I know the world is not the same as it was some years ago, and academic time is sliced finer and finer with a lot of multitasking going on. But the unique aspect of working with young people is always the attractive part for me.
WL: Definitely quite rewarding to be a teacher in academia and sharing your knowledge with young people in a way they can understand. Now if there is one piece of advice to give to people who want to be like you, what would it be?
FL: That’s a difficult question. I’m not sure if I want anyone to be like me; I’d say just be yourself! I think it’s probably important everyone finds out what you really like as an individual person. This may mean trying different things, as long as they are positive and constructive, just do what you like. But try not to do the most obvious thing if possible; it can be avoided. It’d be more fun to do less obvious things. It is also important to learn from others and being aware of their views, especially if they’re different from your own, but try to have your own view nonetheless, because that increases the collective awareness of all of us. I think if there’s one thing people can do more of is to ask more the ‘why’ question.
WL: Asking the question why!
FL: It does get kind of annoying when you keep asking the question why, but my opinion is that if you ask people the why questions and they’re not annoyed, they’re your friends to keep!
WL: Last question. What do you like to do in your spare time?
FL: That’s a good question. Are you talking about hobbies or things outside of work?
FL: Well, I work a lot. If I have any spare time, I tend to keep to my endurance sports schedule that I like to maintain. I do some cycling and running.
FL: Funny that you said that. I’d like to do triathlon, but I’m not a swimmer - I can’t swim. I’m really jealous of everyone who can swim, which means pretty much every Australian, right?
WL: I’m Australian-born but I don’t like swimming!
FL: I actually like swimming. I’m just terrible at it; I’m not skilled at it. So I stick to cycling and running and try to keep at it whenever possible. I train with other amateurs, but good to do it in a cohort and as need be with people at the same level. It can be a time to get out into nature, and Sydney is a very special place in that regard - it only takes a few minutes to get out of the city to get to, say, a national park, so it’s a huge advantage for people who live in this truly unique environment where you can have both.