Jianjun Cheng is in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Chemistry, and Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and works on synthetic polymeric biomaterials, self-healing polymers, nanomedicine for drug and gene delivery, and chemistry mediated in vivo targeting. Jianjun recently published a paper in Nature Chemistry entitled “Cooperative polymerization of α-helices induced by macromolecular architecture“.
1. What made you want to be a chemist?
I had very strong interest in making materials that can work and have cool functions. Since high school, I have also been fascinated by the versatility of organic chemistry. Choosing polymer chemistry and materials science as research directions is an obvious combination of these interests. I was very fortunate that I could build up my career based on my interests.
2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be — and why?
Probably some of kind of management work or as an entrepreneur, managing a large scale projects or many people to accomplish something big is challenging but would be very interesting. I often feel excited by important things that are not particularly easy to accomplish.
3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?
I am working on an exciting but challenging project now to use small molecule sugar compounds to achieve in vivo cancer specific labeling and targeting. We have validated the concept and published our preliminary studies in Nature Chemical Biology in 2017. Developing this technology towards clinical application is something I hope to push forward in the next five years or so.
4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with — and why?
Wallace Carothers, who invented nylon. He is one of the greatest polymer chemists ever and his work has changed the world.
5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab — and what was it?
About 7–8 years ago, trying to do ring-opening polymerization of N-carboxyanhydrides to make polypeptides.
6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?
Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book full of imagination. The ancient Chinese novel contains tons of plots, many personal and military battles, over one thousand dramatic historical characters, and struggles and strategies of these three states to survive or to achieve dominance over a period of about 100 years. It is arguably the most widely read historical novel ever in China.
For music album, I particularly like the songs from Chinese rock stars Daolang and Wang Feng. Their songs have a ton of power, are very touching, and can go straight to your heart.
7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions — and why?
Prof. Haifeng Gao at the University of Notre Dame, a young, dynamic and highly respected polymer chemist. His “Chain-Growth Click Polymerization of AB2 Monomers for the Formation of Hyperbranched Polymers with Low Polydispersities in a One-Pot Process” work (Angew Chem 2015, 7631) is very elegant.