UC chemistry professor joins '500 Club'

Chemist William Heineman contributes to his 500th publication in chemistry books and research journals

Students overwhelmed at writing their first research paper can take heart.

Filling all that white space can be daunting, even for experts such as University of Cincinnati Distinguished Research Professor of Chemistry William Heineman.

Heineman’s most recent paper on using carbon nanotube thread to detect heavy metals was published in Analytical Chemistry. It marks the researcher’s 500th contribution to a research journal or book.

“I would just say persevere,” Heineman said. “It isn’t easy to write research papers. Most scientists don’t go into science because they like to write. But it’s worth it for your career to put the effort in to learn to do it well. Take advantage of every opportunity to become a better writer.”

Heineman has spent much of his early career developing the science behind some of the world’s first biosensors that combine electrochemistry with antibodies to detect everything from drugs to viruses to chemical pollutants for biomedical and environmental applications. Today, biosensors are fast becoming household products for people concerned with their health and fitness.

“My research group and I showed that antibodies can be combined with electrochemical detection, which turned out to be an important discovery. We did a lot of early pioneering work in collaboration with UC professor Brian Halsall,” Heineman said.

UC professor William Heineman stands next to UC researcher Kolade Ojo in lab coats at a lab bench.

UC professor William Heineman, right, and his former postdoctoral fellow Kolade Ojo, now an assistant professor at UC, work in Heineman's chemistry lab. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Contributing to so much research over the years has required dedication and commitment, said Anna Gudmundsdottir, former head of UC’s Department of Chemistry, where she has more than 80 journal research articles or book chapters of her own.

“He is extremely good at getting published and his work has had a big impact,” Gudmundsdottir said. “He has an excellent reputation in the field.”

Heineman said he developed that reputation by having original ideas and being careful about presenting his findings.

“It has been said that Mother Nature does not like giving up her secrets,” Heineman said. “Doing research means you are right on the edge of discovery. That means you don’t know everything yet about the chemistry, so it’s easier to make mistakes.”

Research is important in UC’s chemistry department — so important that every undergraduate must spend a semester in the lab conducting research as a requirement of graduation.

“In the classroom, you learn what to do,” Gudmundsdottir said. “But in the labs, you’re showing what you know. Students get practical experience. They learn to solve problems.”

UC’s Department of Chemistry often partners with other colleges at UC to collaborate on research in fields ranging from engineering to medicine. UC’s labs feature the latest technology for experiments.

“That’s the fun part,” Gudmundsdottir said. “You get to play with toys that you wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to. You can’t do modern chemistry without good equipment.”

William Heineman talks about his research career in his office.

UC chemistry professor William Heineman has worked with researchers in medicine, engineering, industry and government. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Our initial research in spectroelectrochemistry established me very early in my career because the work we were doing was groundbreaking.

William Heineman, UC Distinguished Research Professor of Chemistry

Heineman said his path to UC was serendipitous. He grew up in West Texas before going to Texas Tech University and the University of North Carolina to study chemistry. A job in the private sector wasn’t everything he hoped it would be, so Heineman accepted postdoctoral fellowships at Case Western Reserve University and The Ohio State University before coming to UC in 1972 as a faculty member.

“Those were critical decisions,” he said. “I never envisioned I would work at a research university publishing all these papers.”

At UC, he first specialized in spectroelectrochemistry, which combines chemistry with electricity and light.

“Our initial research in spectroelectrochemistry established me very early in my career because the work we were doing was groundbreaking,” Heineman said. “With spectroscopy, one can identify more precisely what is happening as a result of an electrochemical reaction is possible from using just the conventional methods of measuring current and voltage.

“So combining spectroscopy with electrochemistry into a single technique by shining light through transparent electrodes proved very effective and our new techniques got a lot of attention worldwide.”

This technology has improved over the years to become a powerful research tool, he said. Heineman’s final PhD student used spectroelectrochemistry to develop sensors to characterize radioactive waste stored in enormous underground tanks at the nation’s Hanford site in Washington.

“So, the science of spectroelectrochemistry has spanned my entire career from the very first papers showing how the fundamental process works to recent articles describing its use in an important application,” he said.

Beakers and other lab equipment.

UC's chemistry l abs are equipped with millions of dollars in technology that contributes to collaborations with UC's College of Medicine and College of Engineering and Applied Science. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

One reason for his publishing success is UC’s commitment to research, Heineman said. UC is categorized nationally as a Research 1 university by the Carnegie Foundation. Research is a core mission of UC's strategic direction called Next Lives Here.

“Research is very important to this university. That’s the environment graduate students want to pursue their advanced degrees in chemistry. To do chemistry today requires a lot of expensive instrumentation and UC has the facilities,” Heineman said. “If you walk around this department, you find millions of dollars of investment.”

Heineman said he also established an early reputation of journal-worthy research that helped him win grants to continue his work, creating a feedback loop.

“Getting published helps you a lot. It shows you’re committed to doing the research and following through,” he said. “The publications help you get grants so you can support graduate students and hire postdocs to work on the projects. I’ve had large research groups in my career in part because I’ve had a lot of good ideas and the grant funding to work on them.”

Heineman said students work hard to get their work published in respected journals.

“Most of the research I’ve done over my 46-year career involves undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists,” Heineman said.

“Many of my projects have involved collaborations with other groups at UC in chemistry, engineering and the UC College of Medicine and at other universities, government labs and industry. So, grant funding, large research groups, collaborations with other research groups and many publications go hand in hand.”

Thomas Beck, UC’s head of chemistry, said Heineman’s work has helped attract new talent in the field of chemical sensing.

“In recent years, Bill Heineman has been instrumental in recruiting world-class faculty to the department,” Beck said. “So he has helped lay the groundwork for continued research excellence into the future.”

UC’s chemistry department sponsors a Research Experience for Undergraduates program with funding from the National Science Foundation. Each year, 10 undergraduates from across the country are invited to campus to work on research projects on a variety of topics with different faculty.

“Getting a grant is very competitive,” Heineman said. “It shows how committed we are to teaching undergraduates who to conduct research.”

UC assistant professor Kolade Ojo works in a chemistry lab.

UC assistant professor Kolade Ojo works with UC professor William Heineman in Heineman's chemistry lab. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Every research paper always starts with the germ of an idea, he said.

“I’ve always had lots of ideas. And some of them are good!” he said. “You need novel ideas during your career. That makes all the difference.”

UC shares what it learns with a global audience, Heineman said.

“UC has a strong reputation in my field of analytical chemistry and electrochemistry,” Heineman said. “We publish a lot in those areas and those publications are seen worldwide. So I get invitations to speak all over the world.”

Today, chemistry students have even more job opportunities available to them, he said.

“Chemistry is a central science. You can do so many things with a chemistry degree, working in government, health, environmental science or industry,” Heineman said.

UC has a strong reputation in my field of analytical chemistry and electrochemistry.

William Heineman UC Distinguished Research Professor of Chemistry

Still, each paper represents a fresh challenge, Heineman said.

“Even in chemistry, it comes down to storytelling,” Heineman said.

He tells his students to start with the numbers from their experiments that convey what story they’re trying to tell their fellow researchers.

“The big thing is just getting started,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider myself an excellent writer. I still have a lot to learn. But I know how to put a paper together and I try to pass that skill on to my own students.”

UC graduate Tingting Wang remembers writing her first research paper: a study of carbon nanotubes published in 2013 in the international journal Electroanalysis.

“It was hard,” she recalled. “Even though I collected all the experimental data, I wasn’t sure how to put it together in a paper.”

Wang said Heineman was extremely supportive in helping her get started — the hardest part in most endeavors. Finishing the first paper proved especially difficult.

“We had almost 10 drafts,” she said. “It is like telling a story — not only for people in your field but for people very new to the topic. You’re supposed to write it in a way that they can understand.”

Today, Wang has 20 scholarly publications, a majority of which were published during her PhD study in Heineman’s group. She works at the University of Maryland’s Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research. Getting published makes a big difference in a student’s career. That’s where Heineman, her UC advisor, really helped, she said.

“He’s a truly amazing person,” Wang said. “I am so grateful to have worked with Bill. All of us in the Heineman group felt the same way. We just thought we were so lucky to be his students.”

Featured image at top: UC chemistry professor William Heineman reflects on his career in his office. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services


Next Lives Here

The University of Cincinnati is classified as a Research 1 institution by the Carnegie Commission, and is ranked in the National Science Foundation's top 35 public research universities. UC's graduate students and faculty investigate problems and innovate solutions with real-world impact. Next Lives Here.