Edward H. Wong
Excellence in Teaching
Associate Professor of Chemistry
College of Engineering and Physical Sciences
"Chemistry is not dogma; it is evolving all the time," says Edward Wong. "When I was going to high school and college, you couldn't 'see' molecules. Now you can!"
It was in high school—an affordable all-boys Catholic school run by Salesian brothers in Hong Kong—that Wong first took an interest in science. (Wong’s parents moved the family from mainland China when the communists took power.) If not for an aversion to frog and cockroach innards, he may have taken a different career path. "I was good at chemistry and biology, but couldn't handle the dissections," says Wong. "That really grossed me out."
In 1964, chemistry brought Wong to the University of California at Berkeley "in time for the hippies and the free speech movement," he says. "My first semester, they were boycotting classes, so that was quite a trip."
At first the culture shock was a bit overwhelming. Like his classmates, Wong let his hair grow longer, went to rock concerts, and protested against the Vietnam War. In his junior year, he started tutoring. By the time he was a senior, he was considering a teaching career. A graduate teaching assistantship at Harvard sealed it.
"I found I really enjoyed seeing the light bulb go on," he says. "When you explain challenging concepts, there are those times you can see the eyes light up and clearly something has been grasped, and that's one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching."
Keeping up with the latest discoveries is the key to making chemistry continually interesting, says Wong, who came to UNH in 1978 from Fordham University. "What to me is most exciting and makes me more charged up for class is when I find something new that has just been published that's relevant to what I'm teaching," he explains.
Wong credits his department for placing a high value on good teaching, noting that most of the faculty have won awards for teaching and research. While research may sometimes seem to compete with teaching, Wong says the two are integral. "To teach well, you have to be a researcher. You hear some people put down teachers as those who can't do; research makes sure you can do," he says. "It brings life to your classes."
During the summer, Wong concentrates on research, working with a team of graduate and undergraduate students in the lab. Mainly, his research has involved fundamental aspects of inorganic chemistry, but lately he and colleague Gary Weisman have focused on using copper-binding molecules as cancer imaging agents. They've developed a new class of molecules that has the potential to enable doctors to spot cancer earlier than ever before.
Wong's passion for chemistry is perhaps only matched by his passion for baseball. Throughout the season, this self-described "Red Sox nut" (since 1967, he is careful to point out) follows the team religiously. "I live and die with the team every day," he says.
And so when Wong discusses chirality, it's an opportunity to join chemistry and baseball. Like right and left hands, chiral molecules are at first glance identical, yet are actually different, with distinct properties, because they are dissymmetrical.
A close examination of a baseball's stitching shows that it lacks bi-lateral symmetry, leading to the intriguing possibility of left- and right-handed baseballs, explains Wong. But it turns out that a baseball is not chiral because, although it lacks a mirror plane, it possesses a more subtle symmetry axis.
"It's a nice illustration of how you need to go deeper in science," says Wong. "I like to think that all these concepts go beyond chemistry and it's actually everyday stuff that makes it way more relevant."