Dr. Hongtao Yu, Professor of Chemistry and Chair of the Chemistry Department at Jackson State University (JSU), obtained his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1982 from the University of Science and Technology of China and Master’s degree from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1986. Then he went to Germany and obtained a Ph.D. degree in bioorganic chemistry from the Technical University of Munich in 1990. After graduation, he came to the U.S. and did postdoctoral fellowships at Louisiana State University and the University of Texas at Austin. In 1996, he was hired as an assistant professor of chemistry at JSU and promoted to associate professor in 2000 and full professor in 2005.
Dr. Yu’s research includes toxicological study of various chemicals, design of novel nanomaterials, environmental photochemistry, anticancer drug design and mechanism of action study, and DNA structure and function. He has been the author/co-author for over 80 peer-reviewed publications in international and national renowned journals, over 200 presentations at national or international conferences, and author of one book. He has been an invited speaker by over 30 universities in the U.S. and abroad. His research has been funded by National Institutes of Health, Army Research Office, and National Science Foundation.
Dr. Yu has served on the Jackson State University Strategic Planning Committee, as Chair of the University Curriculum Committee, and Co-Chair for the International Week at JSU. Dr. Yu was the Outstanding Faculty Honoree of the Higher Education Appreciation Day-Working for Academic Excellence (HEADWAE) by the Mississippi State Legislature during the 2004-2005 year, the National ChemLuminary Award for “Best Activity with Underrepresented Minority Students and/or Organizations” for the 1998 National Chemistry Week Events by the American Chemical Society in 1999, and the Best Teacher by the Sigma Phi student honor society in 1998. Dr. Yu lives in Madison, Mississippi with his wife and the youngest son, while his two grown sons are in college at Rice University majoring in Bioengeering and Chemistry, respectively.
When and how did you first become interested in chemistry? Who or what helped nurture this interest?
When I was in high school, my chemistry teacher, Mr. Guo, opened up the mystery of the physical world by explaining the phenomenon involving chemical compounds. Although mathematics was my first choice for college and equally interesting to me, I ended up majoring in chemistry as my second choice. While in college at University of Science and Technology of China, I was especially fascinated by organic chemistry and how chemical reactions work on the electronic level.
What are the key experiences and decisions you made that have helped you reach your current position?
A key experience was realizing the great potential of the Department of Chemistry at Jackson State University, an historically black university with a few truly outstanding research faculty members. However, there was a low enrollment for B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. programs, a need for more research faculty members, and outdated curricula. We developed a comprehensive recruitment plan, upgraded all the graduate and undergraduate curricula, hired more energetic research faculty members through added/retirement replacement positions, and implemented a mentoring program for junior faculty. We further enriched our nurturing environment for underrepresented minority students by developing mentoring and tutoring programs, better services to students, personalized curriculum for incoming graduate students, and a social network linking students, faculty, and staff. These departmental efforts resulted in tripling of the enrollment for B.S., M.S., Ph.D. programs, increased external funding, improved facilities, and doubling of research publications.
Who were your role models or mentors and how did they help you?
I consider my postdoctoral advisors, Drs. Mary Barkley (Louisiana State University) and Lawrence Hurley (University of Texas at Austin), as great role models. Mary’s strict professional requirements, especially on written English, shaped me. Their professional work ethic inspired me. Dr. Abdul Mohamed, retired dean of the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology at JSU, was a great mentor for me in my job as a Department Chair.
In your pursuit of chemistry, did you encounter any experiences or challenges that were completely unexpected or that you weren’t prepared for? If so, how did you handle them?
My professional training did not prepare me to teach chemistry or to write proposals. I had to learn through unconventional means such as the experience I gained through being a Bible study teacher.
Why is your diversity volunteer role important to you? What benefits do you see, for yourself and for the students with whom you work?
Students need mentoring, particularly those with a single parent and those from an economically disadvantaged background. Sometimes, a professor’s advice is more accepted than the same advice from their parents. The students we have are greatly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). To answer the charge by the government about workforce diversity, we need to continue to work to provide the help needed by these students to succeed in the STEM fields, particularly in chemistry.
What motivates you in your professional life? Outside of your professional life?
To see students from all walks of life including from disadvantaged backgrounds grow in life and mature professionally is the greatest joy for me. I can recall in my mind many students who have gone on to greater things. It is also gratifying to see faculty members fulfill their professional life in a harmonious department. On the personal level, I am grateful for my wife and three great sons. Two of them are already in college studying engineering/chemistry. I am hoping that they all will grow up to become young men full of hope in life and with loving hearts.
What advice would you give to young people from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in a career in chemistry?
Chemistry is a great profession worth pursuing. You can do a lot with a chemistry degree. You can work in academia as a professor (best profession!), government, or in industry. You can be in research, management, medicine, law, pharmacy, etc. You can even start your own business.