Red Star

Nieng Yan

The outspoken scientist


When China embarked on its economic reforms in the 1980s, one policy was to send the best students to overseas universities. Since then a challenge has been enticing them to return, especially top scientists. This month one of China’s most famous returnees decided to leave the country again.

China’s “goddess scientist”

Nieng Yan (or Yan Zhu) graduated from Tsinghua University with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2000 then promptly moved to the US to pursue a doctorate and post-doctorate degree at Princeton University. After completing her studies in 2007, she returned to China and accepted a post at her alma mater, becoming one of Tsinghua’s, and China’s, youngest professors at the age of 30.

Yan established her own laboratory on molecular structure. Her lab pioneered crystallising the structure of GLUT1, a protein that transports glucose to cells. China’s state media said it was a feat that had stumped scientists for 50 years and an achievement that led the way for further research on curing cancer and diabetes. Yan’s pioneering work and good looks soon had local media touting the biologist as “China’s goddess scientist”.

Research no more

Yan has won a number of awards for her research, including the Young Scientist Award in 2005 when she was still completing her doctorate. However, she has also been outspoken in criticising China’s research environment.

In 2014, she reported on her blog that the government had rejected her team’s application for a grant. Scathingly, she wrote, “Aren’t key research funds supposed to support risky but important research? Or are they only to support projects with predictable results and guaranteed success? Is that the way for innovation?” A year later her team failed to secure funding again.

So back to Princeton

This month, Yan announced she was leaving Tsinghua to take a post at Princeton. Her departure has sparked much soul-searching, leading to a national discussion on whether the 40 year-old’s move is down to personal choice or, indeed, reflects a broader trend in the global flows of talent, despite the government’s stated policy to attract elite scientists to work in China.

Speaking to Guangming Daily Yan said she actually made up her mind back in 2015. “I was afraid of being in an environment for too long that would make me ignorant without me even knowing it. Changing my environment [will] hopefully help me achieve new breakthroughs in science,” she explained.

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