Peter Chen, Ph.D.: Advancing Cutting-Edge Research in a Small Liberal Arts Environment

Peter Chen, Ph.D.Peter Chen, Ph.D., is a chemist, so he tends to think in terms of compounds. However, when he's asked to describe the decisive ingredient in his success as a researcher, he offers a surprising response: LUCK.

“I do feel really, really lucky when I think about the number of times that we have made mistakes in the lab, and then we worked pretty hard to figure it out, and all of a sudden, we had a ‘Eureka!’ moment,” said Dr. Chen, a professor of chemistry in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

“So it looks like a lot of what we’ve done was deliberate and straightforward, but a lot has been due to a combination of luck, hard work and persistence.”

Conduct Groundbreaking Research

The chemist’s modest appraisal of his achievements isn’t shared by others in the scientific community. Dr. Chen has garnered praise – and a prestigious National Science Foundation Career Award – for his groundbreaking research in the field of laser spectroscopy. His leadership in the field, which is devoted to developing new ways of using lasers to study molecules, is all the more remarkable because it’s happening at Spelman. 

“There’s a large community of researchers in the emerging field of coherent multi-dimensional spectroscopy, which uses multiple laser beams to study molecules, but it’s almost exclusively happening at major research universities,” said Dr. Chen.

While the big graduate institutions have thrown scores of researchers and millions of dollars into coherent multidimensional spectroscopy, which Dr. Chen describes as a “hot area” of research, many undergraduate liberal arts schools are left on the sidelines and lack the resources needed to get into the game. This means smaller schools are being left out of exciting research and funding opportunities in an emerging field that could eventually help scientists tackle a wide range of problems in many different fields.

Were it not for Dr. Chen, Spelman also might have been left behind. However, he has used a two prong strategy -- being creative and making the most of what you have -- for securing research funding and making important breakthroughs in his field. 

Be Creative and Resourceful

  “I think the reason I’ve gotten funding is because the funders say, ‘These ideas may not be as fully developed as if they were coming from a research university, but they involve really creative and potentially transformative ideas, so let’s support this effort,” said Dr. Chen, who recently received a half-million dollar NSF grant to develop a new kind of coherent multidimensional technique that works in the infrared region.

Most funders don’t expect smaller schools to pursue the kind of large-scale, cutting-edge research projects normally undertaken by major research institutions, Dr. Chen said. So, undergraduate liberal arts colleges like Spelman can improve their funding prospects by developing innovative, high impact, targeted projects that give the faculty member a unique niche in an important field.

Peter Chen, Ph.D.Dr. Chen also suggests that researchers at smaller schools should constructively assess and utilize their existing resources and areas of expertise identifying areas of interest. He observes that one of his biggest breakthroughs resulted from his use of older style lasers to develop new techniques.

“These days, a lot of people want to use newer femtosecond lasers to do laser spectroscopy. We decided to use traditional nanosecond laser systems, and it turns out that these older systems can be used to do things that the newer femtosecond laser systems have difficulty doing,” said Dr. Chen. 

In fact, the clever utilization of that “old fashioned” laser by Dr. Chen, his research assistants and his students literally is pushing the science of spectroscopy into a whole new dimension.

“Many groups have figured out how to carry out two-dimensional spectroscopy, but there are very few that have demonstrated real applications of coherent three-dimensional laser spectroscopy. We’re one of the few groups that actually has done that because it turns out that it’s easy to do third dimensional work with our nanosecond laser systems,” said Dr. Chen.

“As a result, we’ve been able to sort of leapfrog and make considerable progress in the field of high resolution three-dimensional spectroscopy while other groups have struggled with phase stability requirements needed to make 3D spectroscopy work with femtosecond lasers.”

Learn by Increasing Responsibilities

Straddling dimensions in the lab may be Dr. Chen’s chief professional preoccupation, but that doesn’t mean he’s detached from other important responsibilities of a faculty member at a liberal arts college. A former chair of Spelman’s Tenure and Promotion Committee, Dr. Chen says it’s important for faculty members to be mindful of their responsibilities to their students and to the College-at-large. There are times when Spelman needs faculty to be willing to lead and help carry out important responsibilities at the institution. Assuming leadership can help teach a person valuable lessons.
“Start of QuoteI learned how important it is to learn how to talk and really listen to people, End of Quoteto seek advice when you’re not sure yourself, and to benefit from the wisdom shared when dedicated people from different backgrounds come together to seriously think and plan together,” said Dr. Chen.
“The experience has taught me so much about the institution, about my colleagues, and about myself. With any sort of leadership, you can develop a higher level of dedication and attachment to the institution.”

Remember The Larger Mission

So, while Dr. Chen regards his research as an essential element of his professional life as a chemist, his leadership roles have been a constant reminder of his larger mission at Spelman: to teach.

“I did, at one time, consider whether I should be at an institution with a graduate program,” recalled Dr. Chen, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.

“I had a couple of offers early on in my career. I’d go there, visit and think to myself ‘That’s very nice.’ I could see how it’d be great to work with these graduate students; but something was really missing. I knew I would not be nearly as excited as I am coming to work with the students here at Spelman.”

His decision to forego a job at a research university hasn’t hurt his standing in the research community. Dr. Chen holds a number of major recognitions, including a NASA Faculty Award for Research and a Charles N. Reilley-Upjohn Award for outstanding research in analytical chemistry. He has served as a chemistry councilor with the Council for Undergraduate Research and received a Spelman’s Presidential Award for Research.

Bring Others Along on the Journey

However, it’s possible that the best evidence of Dr. Chen’s success in his trifold role as a teacher-researcher-leader might be found in a certain number: 50. That’s the approximate number of undergraduate research students who have shared his scientific journey during the past 20+ years. That’s 50 women working at the cutting edge of exciting new research in spectroscopy, led by their passionate interest in scientific discovery and the unbridled enthusiasm of their teacher-mentor.


faculty-excellence-2020.jpgAs we continue to elevate the Spelman difference, we lift up the accomplishments of our faculty in the many ways that they manifest excellence. In our Faculty Excellence at Spelman College publication, we highlighted innovations in research and creative endeavors. This issue uplifts various forms of faculty leadership in the College and beyond.