CHICAGO (June 19, 1:10 p.m. EDT) — Pak-Wing “Steve” Chum grew up poor in tiny Macau near Hong Kong, where his family had fled from the newly formed People's Republic of China in 1949 when he was just two months old. War had ravaged the region.
In the 1960s, in his last year of high school, Chum saw a newspaper story that said Dow Chemical Co. would build a polystyrene plant in Hong Kong. “And then I thought, well, I want to have a stable life, and if I can study chemistry and work for Dow as a technician, I will have a stable life,” Chum recalled.
Fast forward from those humble beginnings. Today Chum, 56, is the chief scientist of plastics research and development at Dow — and at NPE 2006 this week, he is entering the Plastics Hall of Fame. His crowning achievement is a big one: a string of new polyolefin products from Dow's metallocene-based Insite technology.
Chum is recognized around the world as an expert in the material science of semi-crystalline polymers. He pioneered the use of computer models to commercialize resins made under the Insite platform, using something called the SixDay Product Design Software.
As a young man back in Macau, Chum did not know much about chemistry. He wasn't thinking: “I can make a lot of money.” He just wanted a decent life working in a nice clean laboratory.
His parents had moved again, to Hong Kong, while he finished high school in Macau. His father, who had a grade school education, worked odd jobs as a laborer and jewelry store merchant.
“I told my dad that, if he can afford to put me in college, I'd like to study chemistry,” Chum said. At first his father was confused because in Hong Kong there was a soy sauce factory also called Dow. “But then I explained to him, it's Dow Chemical!”
Chum recapped his career at Dow during a May 9 interview at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Antec conference in Charlotte, N.C., where he picked up the Thermoplastic Materials and Foams Division's 2006 Outstanding Achievement Award.
A lighthearted man who laughs easily, Chum explains complex issues like polymer chemistry in understandable terms.
His family was able to send him to Hong Kong Baptist College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1970. Chum realized he was pretty smart — that he could be more than a technician. But he needed more education. Money was tight.
“What I needed is for some school in the U.S. to accept me and give me money to study. Not just tuition, but actually living expenses.”
He took a low-paying job teaching ninth-grade chemistry and math, scraping together enough money for a one-way ticket. In 1972, he made his first-ever airplane flight, landing in Detroit, then flying on to Marquette, Mich., where he would study chemistry at Northern Michigan University.
NMU? “Well, that was the only college that would give me money to go to school,” Chum said. He laughed. “Actually it was an excellent school. I learned a lot from it.”
The first thing he learned was what intense cold feels like — Upper Peninsula of Michigan cold.
“I got on an airplane at 72° F and got off at minus 20°,” he said. There was two feet of snow on the ground.
But Chum was determined to do well, remembering his family's tough life back home. He picked up a master's in chemistry from NMU in 1974, then got a doctorate four years later from Oregon State University.
He worked at Owens Corning Fiberglas Corp. as a research chemist in Granville, Ohio, but only for a year and a half before joining Dow in 1980.
Owens Corning had expanded too fast in the late 1970s, Chum said. “No one mentored me. I was left alone … it was not a very good experience,” he said.
But he took that lesson to Dow: “Every time a new employee comes in, I will assign people, or even sometimes myself, to mentor them. Every couple of weeks, follow up with them. What are you doing? Are you happy with it? Are you applying your learning to your job? Are you satisfied? Do you have any family issues that we can help with? It's very successful in developing people like that.”
He interviewed for the job of senior research chemist — the entry-level job for a Ph.D. — at Dow headquarters in Midland, Mich., two days after Christmas. Not many people were at work, but Chum explained his research work to about 15 Dow people in a conference room. That's when he met Bud Rubens, a Dow research fellow and elder statesman of polymers.
“One of the gentlemen, an older gentleman, was so interested in what I talked about, my work. And this gentleman, he just grabbed me and continued to talk. And that was Bud Rubens. Now, he was the most senior scientist,” Chum said.
Rubens, who went into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 2000, had his own rags-to-riches story that began when he hitchhiked to Midland in the Great Depression. Rubens told Chum all about how Dow got into plastics. He encouraged Chum to take courses in plastics technology.
“Bud has mentored me throughout my career,” Chum said. “My background was chemistry, so why did I get into plastics? It was because of Bud.”
Chum decided to move from Midland to Dow's Freeport, Texas, location, which houses polyethylene and polypropylene production and R&D. He still works in Freeport.
Meanwhile, in the mid-1980s, Dow had beefed up metallocene research after its scientists discovered several classes of metallocene catalysts for olefin polymerization. The umbrella technology, Insite, has yielded a gold mine of new polyolefin product families — at least one each year over the last 12 years, delivering more than $1 billion in net sales.
To develop Insite, Chum worked closely with Kurt Swogger, Dow's vice president of R&D for plastics and chemicals, and company research scientists Che Kao and Jim Stevens, among others.
Swogger nominated Chum for the Plastics Hall of Fame. A second nomination came from Eric Baer, who founded the Department of Macromolecular Science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Baer is a Plastics Hall of Fame member.
Chum explained his role with the new resins: “I did not develop the catalyst, but I realized what type of molecular structure and molecular architecture we could produce from that catalyst. And for that, I started to design the molecules and say, OK, this is the molecule I want the catalyst to make. And those became families of products.”
The families have well-known names including: Elite enhanced PE resins, Engage polyolefin elastomers, Affinity polyolefin plastomers, Versify propy-lene-ethylene copolymers, Inspire performance PP and Nordel ethylene propylene diene mononer (EPDM rubber).
Dow researchers, led by Chum, are still working on new materials under Insite. President George Bush mentioned Insite when Dow was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 2002.
Chum received the Herbert H. Dow Medal in 2000, the highest honor Dow bestows to its most-senior scientists. He holds 55 U.S. patents.
Another of Chum's major innovations was to harness the power of computer modeling to dramatically speed up new-product development, by spearheading the SixDay Product Design project.
According to Chum, standard Ziegler-Natta catalyst technology makes PE and PP that have multiple sites, so it gives a mixture of polymers. That makes it difficult to make a model that could predict properties, possibly taking several years to develop a new product.
Chum was leading the Dowlex PE research group in 1991, when Swogger became R&D director for PE. Swogger was pushing speed-based R&D. Chum told him about the lengthy process. Way too long, Swogger said.
Chum laughed as he recalled the conversation. “I said, 'How long do you see that we have to be able to design new products?' He said, 'Well Steve, I want it to be six days.' I sweated bullets! I said, 'Well if we have to have this in six days, then I've got to have a computer-based model that can screen out all the potential products and be able to pick the most probable one to three.'”
Fortunately, single-site metallocene catalysts were coming out, which made it easier to model the molecular structure. Chum decided what models needed to be built first.
“For example, I know if I need to design a new product line for heavy-duty shipping stacks, the key is to have tight molecules,” he said.
He worked with Baer and fellow CWRU professor Anne Hiltner, along with other universities, on some concepts.
Dow started using SixDay software in the mid-1990s. Today, there are hundreds of models checking polymer combinations. Depending on the performance requirements, the computer can link together the models. “Then it will spit out a product design, and it will also tell you how this product has to be made,” Chum said.
Chum praised Dow for fostering good leaders, like Swogger, who focus on innovation but also look at the big picture.
“The key is to work on science and technology that can make a profit. And on top of it, science and technology that have the potential to improve the life of human beings. That's the two most essential parts — make a profit and improve what is essential for human needs. If you do both together, you'll be successful,” he said.
Chum, a U.S. citizen, is worried about the future of American research and innovation.
“It's going to be a critical issue. If we cannot continue to encourage our kids to develop their interest in science and technology, I think they're going to suffer in the future.”