Li Yan grew up in a petrochemical town in Hunan Province in southern China. The town was dominated by a major state-owned petrochemical company, and practically everyone there had a connection to the plant.
As did Yan’s father. He began as a chemical engineer with the plant. Later in his career, he developed a special focus in Polystyrene-butadiene-styrene, or SBS, a hard rubber. Over time, her father grew into management, eventually becoming head of a subsidiary plant with over 5,000 workers.
Her connection would morph into a career.
Today, Yan, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, is the Raman Area Product Line Manager for HORIBA Scientific in Piscataway, New Jersey.
“We’re responsible for the sales, marketing, applications and technical support of HORIBA Raman and Raman-AFM products, to grow the business in this region and beyond,” she said.
Yan’s region is North America, including the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Yan credited her original interest in science to her big sister, who “had the most curious mind and reckless courage for her age to try things on her own. I remember watching her tear a perfectly working radio apart just to see how it worked.”
She begged her parents to enter her into the elementary school at age five because Yan thought her sister looked really cool wearing her school backpack. She was granted a special, conditional entry.
“You know when you are at that age point, one year can make a big difference in terms of height. I had no recollections as to what I was doing in school at five when I could barely get on the chair by myself.”
And to many’s amazement, including herself in hindsight, she managed to not only pass but excel in her class. So, she continued on.
As a child, Yan was surrounded and immersed by the chemical industry. But she shared an initial passion with her mother, who was a math teacher. Yan took to math naturally. It was, without a doubt, her favorite subject in school.
“It was just something that was very beautiful,” she said. “You see the logic behind it, and it didn’t matter what aspect and what subject in math you were doing. I remember doing geometry. Math in 3-D is just absolutely beautiful. It's an art.”
Yet she was wrapped up in a petrochemical environment and everyone around her was involved in the business, many with backgrounds in chemistry or engineering. So she began to lean towards those areas.
“You just kind of absorbed it and grew an interest in it,” she said. “It was natural.”
Yan attended Beijing University of Chemical Technology and earned her degree in Polymer Sciences from the College of Materials Sciences and Engineering.
“It was, and still is rare to have a program dedicated to polymer sciences,” she said. “We were one of the few and one of the best in the country.”
She moved on to the U.S., where she earned a Ph.D. in Material Sciences at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s Electrical Engineering department.
The focus for her Ph.D. was on optical materials. She grew various films using physical as well as chemical deposition methods and then characterized them in terms of mainly the optical and physical properties. It was a way of simulating how these materials would perform under extreme environments.
For instance, the International Space Station conducts operations in the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The LEO environment that causes deterioration of materials and electronic components, includes atomic oxygen (AO), ultraviolet (UV) radiation, ultra-high vacuum (UHV), thermal cycles, micrometeoroids, and so forth.
“To send a spaceship up into LEO, you need to know how the materials on the surface of the spaceship are going to be able to withstand the environment,” she said.
Yan would create simulated conditions in the lab for the films, dielectric or metallic, and see what chemical and physical changes they underwent because of environmental changes.
She began at HORIBA as an Ellipsometry Applications Scientist, working with clients and teaching them how to make the best and most use of spectroscopic ellipsometry for various thin films applications, such as semiconductors, photovoltaics, displays, polymers, glasses, and others. She has moved past the applications side of the equation and now runs a large business unit for the company.
The science for Yan is helping others, prospects or customers, to solve a real-world problem and to work together to find a solution. It’s not just about instrumentation; It’s about understanding the application’s needs before recommending a good fit.
“When you talk about instrumentation, you are typically talking about a general purpose piece of equipment,” she said. “We are, however, moving more towards applications-focused solutions. To work with a customer and together find the best suitable solution for their research project. This is true, especially for our industrial clients.”
It always begins by talking to the client about their application. Finding an optimum solution may mean a combination of multiple techniques or instrumentation, method development, or in some cases a custom-made system.
“This requires the sales and product management teams to have the knowledge about not only their own products but, importantly, the market itself,” she said. “It’s science applied in the business world, to help customers identify the best possible solutions. This is where my own technical background comes into play. We try to understand the customer’s needs and see what solution we can possibly offer that best serves their needs. You have to be able to speak in a similar kind of language as the customer.”
Yan described Raman as a vibrational spectroscopy technique which provides detailed information about chemical structure, phase and polymorphy, crystallinity and molecular interactions.
Complementary to infrared spectroscopy, Raman offers a better chemical specificity and spatial resolution. The technique applies to all sample forms (gas, liquid and solid), requiring little to no sample preparations. It’s non-destructive and non-contact. And the analysis is fast.
Raman has been around since it was discovered in 1928 by Nobel Prize Winner Sir C.V. Raman. But new technologies have led to an explosion in its commercial success in the last couple of decades, Yan said.
A number of factors entered into the equation: advancements in the laser technologies used as a light source, faster, more sensitive detectors, advances in filter technology for Raman; and significantly enhanced computing power to process the rich information Raman, particularly Raman imaging, produces.
Raman imaging, which uses a microscope, is a powerful technique for generating detailed chemical maps based on a sample’s Raman spectrum. It provides chemical and structural distribution information about a sample which cannot be observed just using optical microscopy. It’s an invaluable technique for a broad range of applications, such as carbon materials, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, geology and mineralogy, forensics, batteries, life sciences, and others.
“In the past, it could take hours, if not days to map an entire (medicine) tablet,” she said. “Now, you may do this in a matter of minutes. You are able to do imaging in a much faster and easier fashion than you could years ago. It’s a very exciting time for Raman.”
Yan doesn’t credit luck in achieving her goals.
“You have to invest your time and energy,” she said. “Nothing's going to just come all of a sudden. You have to work hard to prepare yourself to be able to handle whatever is going to come at you so that when the opportunity comes up, you will be able to seize that opportunity.” Yan continues, “At HORIBA we are celebrating our 50th Anniversary in Raman spectroscopy, many HORIBA employees have gone before me to make HORIBA the leaders in this technology, I feel empowered and priviledged to continue this legacy for the company.”
Discover 50 years of Raman innovation by HORIBA. Click here to read more about Raman Spectroscopy history and HORIBA's contribution.
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