Professor Omar Yaghi (file photo courtesy of MANAR-VietNam )

Chemist helps Vietnamese university launch advanced chemistry research center

Professor Omar Yaghi, a proponent of global mentorship, has opened a research facility in Ho Chi Minh City to inspire young scientists.

“We don’t do research just to make more money and build the economy. We do it to inspire young people." ~Professor Omar Yaghi

UCLA Today

An internationally known UCLA researcher is applying his expertise and passion for global mentoring to help bolster scientific capacity and technological infrastructure in a nation that boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia.

Professor Omar Yaghi, who was ranked one of the world's top two chemists of the past decade by the Thomson Reuters Center in 2010, is making a difference in Vietnam by helping the country launch a new advanced research center in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

Based at Vietnam National University (VNU), the new center, MANAR-Vietnam, will focus on the creation and development of molecular and nano-architecture, a field that Yaghi has helped expand. The research center, whose director is Anh Phan, a UCLA graduate who completed her Ph.D. studies under Yaghi’s guidance, opened last week.

MANAR will be the first collaborative research center at VNU which will focus on basic science and offer a high-quality postgraduate programs in Vietnam, says Phan, adding that she has long wished for a facility of this kind to benefit scientific research opportunities for Vietnamese researchers and students.

The scientists and administrators at the university, who proposed the international partnership to Yaghi, are particularly interested in a class of crystalline materials called metal-organic frameworks, sponge-like structures that can efficiently store gasses like methane and hydrogen for possible use in alternative-fuel vehicles.

“They’re an interesting class of materials because you can combine organic molecules and inorganic molecules to make new frameworks that are useful for clean-energy applications,” said Yaghi, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry and of molecular and medical pharmacology. “It is now a technology that is practiced all over the world.”

Molecular and nano-architecture is a field that Yaghi, director of the Center for Reticular Chemistry at the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, knows particularly well. He invented reticular chemistry, which focuses on the linking of molecular building blocks into extended crystalline structures. His research has resulted in the creation and production of several new classes of materials that have powerful implications in the advancement of clean energy. The center, which will start with more than two dozen researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, will also enable the university to build its research and technology infrastructure, Yaghi explained. Fueling its growth will be industry partnerships, international collaborations and scholarship exchange. The new center will encourage young scientists to think big and work alongside world-renowned researchers.

“We don’t do research just to make more money and build the economy,” said Yaghi, who was granted a distinguished professorship at VNU. “We do it to inspire young people. Young students have dreams, and we want to help them achieve their dreams. That’s really our focus.”

The relationships between students and professors will be rooted in the concept of global mentorship, a concept that Yaghi is passionate about and has been working to bolster for the past 15 years. He is currently involved in global mentoring programs in Japan and Korea.

“Collaborations have always been around, but global mentoring provides a framework from which to start talking about partnerships and, for researchers, to develop a sustainable path,” he said. “Professors have more ideas than they can execute for various reasons. We have a lot of ideas, and the MOF field is full of new ideas. It has opened up a whole new space that requires development.”

By inspiring students to expand their perspectives and explore their potential, a research program like the one in Vietnam can lead to the creation of an unlimited number of molecular compounds. Yaghi’s lab has already produced more than 500 of them.

The only limit is one’s imagination, he said, adding that he hopes the center will also draw investment support from government and industry leaders.

“The number of variations that could be made is immense, and so you need talent from the world to be involved in this chemistry because no single group from one single country can develop it,” Yaghi said. More importantly, young people can actually be engaged intellectually in this endeavor at a very early stage. “Almost every student can come up with a structure they want to build based on the geometric building block.”

The global implications of such discoveries could be enormous, he said.

“These material s are important for clean-energy, water, the environment and sustainability,” Yaghi said. “These are challenges that transcend borders, and the world needs to join together to solve these problems.”

To make global mentoring a success requires open communication and detailed consultation to learn the needs of the host country and the expectations of both partnering nations in order to ensure transparency and viability.

“You need to help them lead their own effort,” Yaghi explained, and “grow it organically from the bottom up. We have students who come to UCLA from around the world who go back to their home country. So why not extend the mentoring bond that we’ve started with them in our lab overseas to help them build centers of excellence in their own countries?”

Special guests at the opening ceremonies at VNU included An T. Le, U.S. consulate general to Vietnam; Phan Thanh Binh, president of VNU; Tong Duy Hien, vice director of the Laboratory for Nanotechnology at VNU; Phillip Szuromi, supervisory senior editor of Science magazine; and Eric M. Frater, environment, science and technology officer at the Embassy of the U.S. in Hanoi.

Published: Wednesday, December 14, 2011