Dr Plastic's unbending ambition to invent a better world for all

Paggie Leung

Award-winning materials scientist Steve Chum Pak-wing believes there are two important qualifications successful scientists should have: the talent to improve people's living standards and the ability to make money.

'As a scientist you have to work on science and technologies that will make profits,' the Macau-born scientist in plastic and chemistry said. 'You have to also focus ... on improving the lives of human beings. If you put them all together, you'll be successful.'

Dr Chum, 57, is the first Asian to receive the highest honour in the plastics industry - he and seven others will be inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame by the Plastics Academy in Chicago next month. He will join 145 distinguished inductees, including several Nobel laureates such as Paul Flory.

Photographs and a biography of the scientist will be displayed at the National Plastics Centre & Museum near Boston after his induction.

'It is a great honour to bring my family name Chum - which is rare - and my educational background at Hong Kong Baptist College [the forerunner to Hong Kong Baptist University] to the museum,' Dr Chum said.

'And I feel good [to be inducted] with Jack Welch, the legendary CEO from General Electric, at the same time.'

Dr Chum moved to Hong Kong in 1966 for bachelor studies in chemistry at Hong Kong Baptist College before migrating to the United States, where he continued his education and started his career.

Holding 55 US patents and some European and world patents related to polymer materials science, he is now chief scientist at the Dow Chemical Company, which he joined in 1980.

One of his best known inventions is the Insite metallocene-based polyolefin technology, which resulted in the development of materials such as XLA. XLA is used in fibres to make non-wrinkle shirts and trousers.

Asked about his most profitable invention, Dr Chum said: 'Hopefully they are all money-making, some are making a lot of money already [but we are] still investing a lot of money [in some others]. But each one of them has its own uniqueness.'

Unlike physicist Stephen Hawking, who once said his goal was to be able to understand the spirit of God, Dr Chum said: 'For a materials scientist like me, [my goal] is to improve and invent things that are essential for humans.'