In September 2018, members of an IU delegation led by IU President Michael A. McRobbie set out from Beijing to the coastal metropolis of Tianjin and to Nankai University, one of the top universities in China and the world for the study of chemistry. Remarkably, the chemistry department at Nankai itself has close to 400 faculty members, which would make it a “college” at some schools.
Beginning in the 1980s and until around the late 2000s, IU and Nankai had a graduate student and faculty exchange stemming, in part, from a long-ago connection with the Department of Chemistry in IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences. Nankai’s chemistry department was founded by professor Shixian Yang, who would serve as the university’s president from 1957 to 1969 and again from 1979 to 1981. Starting in the 1930s, Yang built connections with Eli Lilly chemists, and he spent time in the early to mid-1940s at IU, during which time he was instrumental in recruiting two renowned Chinese scholars to study at IU.
Binglin He and Ruyu Chen—who were husband and wife and are now deceased—are two of the most distinguished Chinese alumni in IU’s history, known throughout China for their pioneering work in chemistry. Professor He began graduate work in chemistry at IU Bloomington in 1948, and he was joined six months later by his wife, Chen, in the same doctoral program. They both earned doctorates in chemistry from IU in 1952; four years later, they returned to China.
Here at Nankai in 2018, the campus has held extensive celebrations in commemoration of the anniversary of He’s birth 100 years ago and his numerous accomplishments. He went on to become known as China’s “father of ion exchange resins,” and he established the first ion exchanger plant in China. The practical applications of his scientific research include national defense, medical science, and environmental protection. He was the founding head of the Polymer Chemistry Division, the founding director of the Polymer Chemistry Institute, and chair of the Department of Chemistry, which subsequently became the College of Chemistry. He was also the founding president of Qingdao University, while continuing his service at Nankai.
His extensive list of awards and honors includes his induction into the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and he has been widely recognized for both his scholarship and his contributions to China’s national development. A memorial commemorating his life and work was established in his hometown of Panyu in Guangdong Province, and a statue of his likeness was added to the Nankai campus.
Professor Chen went on to become a pioneer in pesticide research in China, and she was also a prominent professor of chemistry at Nankai. She directed Nankai’s Pesticide Laboratory, one of the first laboratories of its kind in China, and she was awarded a patent for the development of a particular pesticide. In 1980, Chen was inducted into the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Her numerous other awards and honors include membership in the United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Chemistry.
Together, the couple was not only known for being world-class scholars, but also for their deep concern for the personal well-being of their students and colleagues. To this end, Professor He divided all of his research, scholarship, and prize money among all the members of his teams, and he regularly gave his own share to graduate students who were experiencing financial difficulties.
During the IU visit, a special ceremony was attended by about 200 Nankai students, staff, and distinguished guests, including Nankai Party Secretary Qingshan Yang. There, IU McRobbie formally recognized the career achievements of He and Chen—and all that they did to improve the quality of life for people in China and beyond—by posthumously presenting them with IU’s Thomas Hart Benton Medallion. The prestigious honor is given to individuals who have represented IU and its ideals in extraordinary fashion around the world.
Accepting the honors for the professors was one of He and Chen’s sons, Norman. Choking back tears, he spoke lovingly and admiringly of his parents, whom, he said, he and many others looked up to because of what they accomplished in their search for knowledge and how well they served the Chinese people. Members of the IU delegation agreed that Norman’s poignant speech—and the pride he wore on his face as he accepted the Benton bronze medal on behalf of his parents—made for one of the most moving IU awards ceremonies in recent memory.
As IU and Nankai honored their shared and special past, it seemed an opportunity to renew and reinvigorate their longstanding relationship. (Several IU faculty administrators traveled to Tianjin in early 2018 with this objective in mind.) What’s more, Nankai will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2019, at the same time that IU kicks off its Bicentennial, and the two universities share a top strategic goal of becoming even more engaged internationally—meaning more student and faculty exchanges and other collaborative activities on a variety of fronts—as they enter their second and third centuries, respectively.
Translation: All of the elements exist to create a formula for strengthening an already proven and productive partnership.
This article was adapted from a post that originally appeared on a blog titled IU Goes to Korea and China, which documented Indiana University’s trip to two economically dynamic, culturally vibrant, and technologically advanced nations that play a major role in global affairs. To learn more about the trip, visit blogs.iu.edu/china-korea-2018.