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Victor Fung: Early focus on sciences, happy accidents lead Wigner Fellow to career in computational chemistry

Topic: Materials

Eugene P. Wigner Fellow Victor Fung’s story is proof that a series of positive experiences around science and happy accidents can lead to a rewarding research career. The Wigner fellowship at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is awarded to early-career scientists and engineers who demonstrate success in fundamental and computational sciences.

Fung says his childhood was rich with parental emphasis on science. “For as long as I can remember, my father would take me to bookstores to buy books, and when I was young, I was really interested in astronomy, so we bought small telescopes to look at the moon and stars,” he recalled.

Fung, whose love of science started with astronomy and biology, found his way to chemistry in college. “I really liked both biology and chemistry in high school, but when I got to university, I had to pick one, and almost by chance I picked chemistry,” he said.

The great experiences he had studying chemistry—particularly his time doing undergraduate research on semiclassical quantum dynamics—kept him on his chosen path. “The positive experiences I’ve had helped me decide to stay in chemistry as opposed to going into another science,” Fung said, reflecting.

Fung also credits a “happy accident” during his undergraduate studies with leading him to computational chemistry, a field of study he didn’t even know existed until he discovered it by chance.

“I heard about an opening for a graduate researcher, and when I went for the interview, I asked, ‘Where’s the lab?’,” he remembered. “They told me they didn’t have one, that they were a theoretical group. That really blew my mind at first because I didn’t know there was such a thing!”

Fung says taking the job meant he had to crash-course computational techniques, but he had a fun time doing the work, and from that point on, he knew he wanted to focus on using computational tools to strengthen physical, laboratory-based research.

Fung received his PhD in chemistry from University of California–Riverside. His dissertation focused on using computational chemistry techniques to identify the best methods for converting alkanes such as methane, ethane and propane into useful industrial feedstocks.

“Selective and energy-efficient conversion of alkanes to high-value products remains a significant challenge,” he said. “My dissertation used first-principles modeling to reveal the catalytic active sites and mechanisms for breaking C-H bonds in heterogeneous catalysts.”

For his dissertation, Fung also developed a set of descriptors—simplified features describing catalysts, such as chemical composition or atomic geometry—that can be used to efficiently predict the performance of known catalysts and to design new ones that more selectively catalyze alkane conversion. He said harnessing the power of computational science allows thousands of catalysts to be screened in a fraction of the time it takes for physical experiments to be performed, enabling researchers to pinpoint the best candidates for laboratory testing.

Fung is working at the Nanomaterials Theory Institute in the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences under the mentorship of Bobby Sumpter.  

During his fellowship, Fung will develop new high-throughput screening and machine learning techniques to provide valuable chemical predictions for nanomaterials at a level of accuracy not yet accomplished in current materials databases. He will also explore quantum materials—whose electrons exhibit unique states arising from quantum effects, and which may have applications in catalysts and electronics—using ORNL-developed quantum Monte Carlo techniques and the Summit supercomputer.

Summit, the world’s most powerful supercomputer, is located at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility.

Perhaps not surprisingly, cooking—an activity that draws on hands-on chemistry and the experimental process—is Fung’s favorite pastime. “Cooking is like chemistry because recipes are made up a lot of components,” he said. “I like trying to perfect how they combine to create the whole dish.”

Take ramen, for example. “There’s the noodle, the soup, the aromatic components…. There’s definitely a lot of scholarship that goes into making a good dish,” Fung said, smiling.

Fung adds that he would also enjoy exploring how computational science might impact the development of solutions for global warming. “This issue is something all of us will face in the next few decades, and it meshes well with the science I’m doing,” he said. “Computational chemistry will show us better ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere or convert them and will help us find more sustainable and renewable sources of energy.”

Fung is also excited by how open science techniques will move society toward a more sustainable future. “I like the idea of using citizen science and pooling computer resources to answer our biggest questions,” he said, “and I feel very lucky to be doing the science that interests me.”

The Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences and Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility are DOE Office of Science User Facilities.

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