The war for talent

Top science professor quits Princeton for Shenzhen


Yan: homeward bound

When structural biologist Yan Nieng first announced that she was leaving Tsinghua University for Princeton in 2017, she explained her decision thus: “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.” At least that is what she told Guangming Daily at the time.

After five years, Yan is on the move again, though this time round, she is going home. Last week, the 45 year-old biologist, who was also once described as “the youngest and prettiest professor” at Tsinghua University, said she will resign from Princeton and move to Shenzhen to establish a medical academy.

“In the near future, I will return to China full-time to assist in establishing a new research and development institution in Shenzhen, which is named SMART, integrating several functions including scientific research, transformation, student cultivation and financial support,” the biologist declared at the Shenzhen Global Innovation Talent Forum last week, adding, “Shenzhen is the city of dreams, and I want to realise my next dream here.”

The timing of her decision was interesting. In recent years, a lot of scientists of Chinese descent have switched their affiliation from American to Chinese institutions, citing US government national security policies that have deterred their research and academic activity. It was reported that 1,400 scientists have returned to China in the last year, a 22% increase from the previous year, calculated the South China Morning Post.

Needless to say, her return has sparked tremendous excitement among the country’s netizens. The topic “Yan announced to leave the US and return to China” has received more than 300 million views on Sina Weibo, with many welcoming her decision to return to her native land.

“It’s great for Yan to come back to the motherland to make contributions. The stronger our country, the better our lives,” one wrote.

Another concurred: “Welcome home, our country needs you!”

Nevertheless, others were surprised by the dramatic change of tone since her “unpatriotic” decision to leave Tsinghua for Princeton, which had conjured up a storm of online vitriol back in 2017. “I still remember how harshly she was criticised for leaving,” one netizen commented.

The state-run Global Times, however, struck a more positive tone, celebrating her return with great fanfare, even going so far as to justify her earlier decision to leave the country. “Some people made a fuss about Yan’s teaching abroad five years ago, but this exactly shows the openness and tolerance of China as a big country,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial. “The reason why talent ‘returns’ is that they are attracted by China’s overall environment that encourages innovation. When the soil is more fertile and the sunshine is more abundant, the vitality displayed by the whole forest is naturally more vigorous.”

Born in Shandong province in 1977, Yan graduated from the Department of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology of Tsinghua University in 2000 and earned a doctorate degree at Princeton in 2004. Upon her return to China, Yan was only 30 when she was appointed a professor at her alma mater Tsinghua. Her move to Shenzhen is the most unusual of her career, given the tech-focused city is not known for world class universities or its academic climate.“I wonder how much Shenzhen is paying her,” one wrote.

Others see her taking a longer term view on a pioneering project. In China, all research hospitals are financed at the state-level not the city-level, since the cost to operate one is very expensive, says Caijing. The new research hospital she’s joining in Shenzhen would be the first city-financed one of its kind in China, which implies that the southern metropolis has big ambitions in the world of medical science.

“Yan’s decision to come back to China for a full-time job shows the attractiveness of Shenzhen to top international talents,” Liu Muyun, director of the National Engineering Research Centre for Key Generic Technology of Cell Industry, told Yicai Global, adding that the city promised to offer Yan fewer bureaucratic restrictions in promoting the application of medical science research discoveries and creating a series of innovative drugs and treatment methods.

News about Yan leaving the US has generated far less attention in the West, however. A search on Google generated only a few hits from the Global Times and the South China Morning Post. Even Princeton hasn’t issued a statement about her departure.

Yan has lofty goals for her tenure in Shenzhen. “My dream is that through the joint efforts of our generations, in 10 or 20 years, Shenzhen will occupy an important place in the world of biomedicine. I hope that one day when people talk about biomedicine, the first thing that comes to mind would be the Greater Bay Area in this part of the hemisphere,” the biologist declares.

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