Der-Min Fan arrived at Temple with a graduate scholarship, a few suitcases and little else. A native of Taiwan, she had never visited the United States and knew almost nothing about life in America.
“It was a bit of a culture shock — a large culture shock, actually,” Fan says. “I knew that Philadelphia was a big city, that it was very diverse and that Temple’s organic chemistry program was very strong. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what I would find.”
She was immediately impressed with the American system of higher education, particularly the availability of the professors. “I attended the most modern university in Taiwan, but Temple was even more accessible,” says Fan, CST ’76. “I consider myself very fortunate.”
Temple was equally as fortunate to have her in its graduate program, says chemistry professor Grant Krow, her research advisor.
“Every so often you come across students who are in a different intellectual universe than their peers. Der-Min was like that. She was the kind of student who was so advanced that you had to evaluate her individually or she would wreck the grading system for the rest of the class,” Krow says.
When Fan’s roommate unexpectedly pulled out of their living arrangement, Krow and his wife invited Fan to live in their basement — “the largest room in the house,” he jokes. That act of generosity solidified a partnership that would produce cutting-edge science and continue to this day.
Research co-authored by Krow and Fan soon began appearing in the pages of prestigious academic publications. Their first paper was accepted in 1974 by the Journal of Organic Chemistry, the highest-profile digest for organic chemistry research. In 1976, they published on a totally different project in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the world’s most respected chemistry periodical. A year later, they again published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry, this time on a third separate project carried out by Fan.
By discovering a distinct way in which nitrogen atoms affect the reactivity of neighboring groups in molecules, Fan and Krow laid groundwork that would eventually allow scientists to make analogues of anti-cancer compounds. “What she discovered in the lab has had a lasting effect and continues to serve as the basis for my research. I’m working on a grant right now in which the chemistry is an outgrowth of Der-Min’s discoveries in our 1974 paper,” Krow says.
After receiving her master’s degree, Fan saw an opportunity to combine her love of chemistry with the emerging field of computer science. She moved to California in 1978 and began working for aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. At the time, there weren’t many people with advanced chemistry skills who could utilize the era’s nascent computer technology. Because she had taken a computer science course before moving west, Fan was in high demand.
She eventually landed at Sunnyvale-based Dionex Corp. as an entry-level software engineer. Dionex designs, manufactures and markets equipment that is used by chemists to isolate and quantify components of complex chemical mixtures. Seventeen years after joining the company, she became vice president of software engineering.
After three decades of utilizing technology in the service of chemistry, Fan says she is concerned about the state of science education in America’s colleges and universities. Too often, she sees international master’s and doctoral students return to their home countries after graduation, instead of staying in the United States as she did.
“Scientific discovery is the basis of a country’s strength,” she insists. “Eventually I’d like to help foster a greater emphasis on science education at all levels, high school as well as college. I’d like to have a positive impact on the future of the country.”
Already Fan has given back to Grant Krow — the professor who supplied both intellectual and material assistance during her years on campus — by supporting his academic research. “I was a stranger to him,” she explains. “He didn’t have to be so generous to me, but he was. I will always be grateful for that.”