young professionals

A Young Research Scientist Follows His Curiosity and Develops a Passion for Helping Others

Name: Zhihao Chen
Age: 31
Title: Research Scientist
Company: ICL-IP Americas
Educational Background: M.S. in Materials Sciences and Engineering from SUNY Stony Brook University
Areas of Study: Polymer Sciences and Nanotechnology

As a shy kid, Zhihao Chen says science — and chemistry in particular — played a massive role in helping him find his self-confidence by stoking his curiosity. Today, Zhihao, 31, works as a research scientist at ICL-IP Americas — where he leads efforts to create new and innovative forms of flame-retardant materials. 

“I was a timid child. I always wanted to play it safe — taking small steps instead of big leaps. I always tried to create buffers to protect myself if something went wrong,” he says. “But my curiosity proved to be a stronger motivator than my fear. I always think curiosity is the best fuel for discovery and innovation. It’s what leads you out of your comfort zone.”

For Zhihao, following his curiosity not only brought him out his shell. It led him halfway around the world. To help him fulfill his goal of having a career in chemistry, his family left his home country of China and came to the United States so that Zhihao could attend college here.

“To put it mildly, it was a challenge. I had to catch up on schoolwork while spending lots of time preparing for my college entrance exams and applying to colleges,” Zhihao says. “In the end, the sacrifice was worth it. I became a scientist — which had always been my childhood dream. I found fulfilment, but it was certainly a stressful time for my whole family.”

Early on in his undergraduate education at Stony Brook University in New York, Zhihao decided to follow his curiosity, choosing to become a materials science major.

“I was inquisitive about polymers,” he says. “I thought — and still believe — that polymers are among the most versatile and incredible materials in the world — polyurethanes in particular.” 

Regular readers of this blog will recall that we constantly say that polyurethane touches our lives in a myriad of different ways, but we don’t always take the time to explain what that means.

“Polyurethane is the only polymeric material I know of that can exhibit thermoplastic, thermoset and elastomeric behaviors. It’s no wonder it has so much daily application,” Zhihao explains. “Here are some examples of things you might find around your home: thermoset polyurethanes mainly create your couch cushions; your cell phone case is likely made from thermoplastic polyurethane; your wood dining table is likely held together and protected using an elastomeric polyurethane.”

When Your Earliest Childhood Memories Are of Building Construction

Zhihao’s earliest memories may have influenced his decision to become a materials scientist. His father worked in building and construction management, so Zhihao grew up on job sites, seeing structures being built and various completion stages.

“I think seeing all of these various materials, like stainless steel, concrete, PVC pipe and polyurethane insulation that go into the construction of a home, made an impression on me,” he says. “You get an appreciation for these individual elements — seeing them come together to create and complete a project is amazing.”

Zhihao was not just curious about the products, like expandable foam insulation. He was interested in the materials that went into making the products themselves.

“As you delve into it, you learn there’s so much science that goes into making these building materials,” Zhihao says. “There is a lot that goes into making the different elements in these products function properly. I gained an early appreciation for that.”

Life as a Young Research Scientist

As a research scientist, Zhihao says his primary role is to design new experiments and formulations to develop new-generation flame retardants for polyurethane.

“In its simplest terms,” Zhihao explains, “my work is to constantly seek out ways to improve the safety of everyday life. Manufacturers are our customers, so we supply polyurethanes for use in the development of everyday products like flexible foam for mattresses, rigid foam for home refrigerators and even elastomers in shoes.”

The most extraordinary sense of accomplishment Zhihao experiences from his work comes from seeing the practical, real-world application of the products he has helped create. He recalls a story not so long ago when he was doing some home improvement projects around the house. He was looking to fill a gap between his basement wall and his garage door, so he made a quick run to the home improvement store to pick up some supplies for the project.

“I needed some door insulation foam sealant, and I saw the product I had helped create sitting on the shelf,” Zhihao says. “It might seem silly, but it was a gratifying moment seeing and holding the product in its final form. Ultimately, I ended up buying it. I needed a foam sealant with flame retardant, and I knew that this one worked well because I had made it.”

Staying Motivated and Enthusiastic to Deliver Great Results

In his downtime, Zhihao likes to unwind by playing the guitar. He says he finds the pursuit similar in many ways to being a researcher.

“Like all instruments, guitar requires a lot of practice and consistency. R & D requires focus as well,” he says. “Just like learning to play an instrument, R & D can be a long process. You see way more failure than success along the way, and to get anywhere, you have to be persistent. You can’t give up until you have some success.”

To find inspiration, he draws from a famous quote from Laozi — an ancient Chinese philosopher.

“Laozi says, ‘The wise man knows what he does not know.’ That always helps me stay motivated and not get discouraged.” Zhihao says. “Polyurethane is a subject that is easy to learn but difficult to master.”

The way Zhihao sees it, more discoveries are waiting to be made and that is motivation enough. “The more discoveries we make about the application of polyurethane,” he says. “The more opportunity we have to make life easier and better for everyone.”