Tsinghua loses star molecular biologist to Princeton – China society and culture news from May 9, 2017

Society & Culture

A summary of today’s top news in Chinese society and culture. Part of the daily SupChina news roundup "A bedtime story about massive infrastructure projects."

Nieng Yan (颜宁 Yan Ning) is one of China’s leading research talents in the life sciences whose work, according to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “combines structural biology, biochemistry, and molecular biophysics.” The South China Morning Post reports that she has decided to leave Tsinghua University, where she has worked for more than a decade, to take up a professorship at Princeton University, where she did her doctoral and postdoctoral studies at the department of molecular biology. Yan began her academic career with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Tsinghua University, graduating in 2000. In 2007, she received a teaching offer from Tsinghua University and became one of the school’s youngest professors. During her time at Tsinghua, Yan led a research team that made groundbreaking discoveries about the physical structure of a protein related to several diseases, including cancer and diabetes. That same year, Yan posted an article on her personal blog about how the government-run National Natural Science Foundation turned down her team’s grant application, indicating that it is difficult in China to get funds for high-risk yet important research projects.

In an interview (in Chinese) with the Guangming Daily, Yan explained that she had received the job offer from Princeton in 2015. Asked why she wanted to relocate, she replied, “I am afraid of being in the same environment for too long and getting used to it. Changing to a new environment will give me pressure, inspire me, and help me to make more achievements.” Yan also added that she will help to promote collaborations between the two schools.

On the social media platform Weibo, many internet users linked Yan’s departure with her unpleasant experience with fund management officials. One commenter wrote (in Chinese), “Whether or not you can get research funding in China all depends on connections. Those who are doing real stuff don’t necessarily get money for their research.” However, other netizens blamed Yan for placing self-interest above the country. “Those who are unwilling to make contributions to their home countries can’t call themselves scientists,” another commenter stated (in Chinese).