This year’s Wolf Prize was awarded to Chi-Huey Wong, a carbohydrate chemist who has pioneered research into the synthesis of complex carbohydrates.
His group at the Scripps Institute in California worked on such projects as the directed evolution and engineering of enzymes for organic synthesis and also studies on carbohydrates that sought to design vaccines for certain ailments. Prof. Wong received his BA from the National Taiwan University and later studied for his PhD at MIT and completed a post-doc at Harvard.
The Wolf Prize is considered a prestigious award and is presented to living scientists and artists (Frank Gehry and Zubin Mehta are among past recipients) by the Israel-based Wolf Foundation. Wong’s work, although not easily accessible to the public, is considered to have had an important impact on the fields of medicine and biology. His work has aided in the study of how to prevent the spread of cancer and other infections in the body. Wong currently heads the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, their equivalent of the national academy of sciences. Wong sat down with The Jerusalem Post to talk about his work and about being in Israel.
How do you feel about receiving the award?
I was contacted by the foundation and I was in a meeting in Taipei, and I was surprised and pleased. I am just very excited to be here and [it’s] a great honor to receive this prize.
Had you heard of it before?
Yes I had. A lot of good things.
Is this your first time here?
I have been here several times. A few months ago I was in Tel Aviv giving a talk at a symposium about carbohydrate chemistry.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Taiwan and then went to MIT for a PhD in chemistry and then to Harvard as a post-doc, and became a faculty member in Texas [before] moving to California and a professorship at [the] Scripps [Research Institute], [which I held] for more than 20 years. I recently took the president’s position of national academy of sciences in Taiwan.
How is the state of research in Taiwan?
I spent most of my time doing research in chemistry and carbohydrate science in the US, and my impression is that... the US is very much focused on original research, encouraging people to get into fundamental and original work....
Before I went to the US, I was educated in Taiwan, and in Taiwan, of course, we also appreciate very much [pure] research.... I think the whole culture in Taiwan is to encourage higher education and research, so many of the students would go to college and then pursue their careers in science and tech and humanities. The government is very supportive of this.
Why is your work important?
I am interested in understanding the role of carbohydrates in biology. As you know they are everywhere, but we don’t understand their role; I wanted to develop more tools to understand their role in biology, and with that understanding we could understand diseases associated with carbohydrates. That was my focus. I was trained as a chemist, but I have major interest in biology. In the past the chemistry of carbohydrates was [known to be] complex, and [they were] difficult to make [synthetically] and... are huge and connected to other molecules like proteins. We needed new methods....
The major contribution I made was to develop synthesis methods to make carbohydrates, and enzymatic methods for large-scale synthesis. With that method available we can understand how they function.
What does that mean for the layman?
Basically, we make them and [then] use them to understand their function. From this process we discovered they are related to many diseases, like cancer and infectious diseases. The other molecules, like proteins, are better understood. Many people in the field have tools and methods [to study them]. Carbohydrates are one of the three major molecules in addition to proteins and DNA [i.e., nucleic acids]. Initially I was just curious and after that I was interested in the problem- solving.
I think we have shown that since we discovered unusual structures related to cancer and used them...to make a change related to many types of cancers and also to modify sugars and protein related to influenza and to discover a so-called universal vaccine, we have [made] some contributions in cancer and infectious diseases [related to] as many as 16 cancers.
What were your impressions of Israel?
I have been here several times, it is a wonderful country with enormous innovation and I got to know many scientists. Innovation is the culture of the country.... I am a chemist with connections to the Technion [University] and chemistry there is really strong. Also nanoscience; we [in Taiwan] have collaboration with the Hebrew University, and we also came up with some other areas of collaboration with Israel between Israel and Taiwan. We are interested in collaborating in other areas as well, which I am looking into. I hope in Taiwan to continue building these relationships. I had co-workers in the US and now they [have become] professors and chemists here at Technion and Ben-Gurion universities and through the meetings and discussions, we will find some new opportunities to work together.
I am impressed by the system here and [particularly] the [Office of the] Chief Scientist [at the Economy and Trade Ministry]. This kind of system is good for innovation and it is something Taiwan could learn from. My understanding is the chief scientist in Israel supports and encourages innovation and new projects. I heard a lot of positive things about policy here.
I know there are many start-up companies in Israel listed on the stock exchange, such as on NASDAQ, and many companies created by scientists in Israel; it is second only to the US, I think.
What hurdles does the research face?
The common problem is that because of the economic problems, a lot of research now is directed toward applications. Basic research is important and I hope the government will continue to support it; without strong basic research it is difficult to come up with applications. ...I think fundamental research is important and [that] more attention should be paid to it, and that is a common issue in Taiwan and Israel.
The ceremony will be held today (Sunday) at the Knesset.