China / Innovation

Groundbreaking NASA work was only beginning for Li

By Luo Wangshu ( Updated: 2015-01-20 15:48

Editor's Note: On Jan 9, the central government presented the State scientific and technological awards. Nuclear physicist Yu Min won the top award. Seven foreign scientists and one overseas organization won the International Science and Technology Cooperation Award. Awards were also granted to 318 scientific and technological research projects. A China Daily reporter interviewed some of the award winners.

Half a century ago, NASA found new PhD graduate Norman N. Li and invited him to consult on Project Apollo for his breakthrough research on membrane technologies.

The Chinese-American scientist won great fame in his field because of the consultancy with NASA while he was in his early 30s.

"I was quite proud of it and wrote to my father in Taiwan," Li said, with a crystal-clear memory of the details.

Li's father, Li Liewen, a patriotic writer and scholar of literature, had encouraged his son to learn science.

Norman Li, 84, who was born in Shanghai and lived as an adolescent in Taiwan, continued his studies in the United States after gaining his bachelor's degree.

He and his wife, Jane C. Li, reside in Chicago. His daughter is the director of the clinical trial center at Harvard University, and his son leads a microelectronics company in the US.

"I remembered someone once told me that to succeed in the West as a Chinese-American, you have to be superior to others," Li said.

Highly successful in his field, his outstanding chemical engineering for Project Apollo was only part of excellence in membrane research.

Li has devoted himself into the membrane and separation technologies and made great contributions in this field.

In 2000, he was awarded the Perkin Medal by the Society of Chemical Industry, the highest chemical engineering award available to scientists in the US. He is the only Chinese-American to have been so honored since the award began in 1906.

Li was elected the US National Academy of Engineering in 1990.

Despite his great success in the US, Li felt obligated to return to China to contribute to science in his motherland.

To honor his contribution to China's scientific development, Li was given the International Science and Technology Cooperation Award on Jan 9 by the Chinese government, its highest award to foreign scientists and organizations.

"I read books when I was a kid and learned how China was bullied because it was weak then. ... My father, as a patriot, also inspired me to love my roots," Li said.

" I have been in close cooperation and had extensive professional exchanges with China for over 30 years, and will certainly continue doing so in my lifetime in the hope to continue to make my contribution to China's scientific and sustainable technology development."

Li first returned to the Chinese mainland in 1982, when he began close cooperation with China in resource utilization, energy and environmental industries.

He chairs the advisory board of the National Institute of Clean and Low Carbon Energy, under the Shenhua Group Corp Ltd, China's biggest coal company.

Li and his wife, a statistics and management expert, introduced an advanced quality management system, Six-Sigma, to NICE, which leads more than 40 research projects, 300 patent applications and other significant innovation in relevant areas.

President Xi Jinping has emphasized that "the direction of technological development in China is innovation, innovation and innovation," Li said, adding that China has made unprecedented progress in science and technological development, and has made remarkable achievements in recent years through the strong support of the Chinese government.

"Six-Sigma is a scientific methodology to encourage and in fact increase innovation," Li said.

He is now helping China to prepare for the Eighth Sino-US Conference on Chemical Engineering in 2015 in Shanghai.

"My current plan is to continue cooperation (with China) in the high-tech fields such as water resource, clean energy, environmental protection, and membrane technology," he said.

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