Chinese structural biologist Nieng Yan

Why renowned Chinese structural biologist Nieng Yan decision to return to China from the US is making waves online. Readers discuss a renowned scientist’s decision to take up a post in Shenzhen. By Dr Yuehai Xiao

On November 1, renowned Chinese structural biologist Nieng Yan delivered a speech at the Shenzhen Global Innovation Talent Forum, during which she announced she would be resigning from her full professor position at Princeton University to join the founding team of the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation. The news went viral on Chinese social networks, garnering over 400 million views on Sina Weibo by the next day.
In her talk, Yan mentioned three stages of life – absorption, verification and output – the first two of which she has completed. She is about to embark on the third by returning to China to work, and passing on what she has learned by building a platform to support more scholars.

Yan herself is a former student of another esteemed scholar, Shi Yigong, who received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University and came back to China to teach at Tsinghua University, before helping found Westlake University, a research university in Hangzhou.

Yan’s move may trigger a wave of influential scholars and scientists returning to China, gradually reversing the brain drain from the country. Top-notch scientists from across the globe, not just those with Chinese heritage, may be attracted to work in China, which offers an abundance of career opportunities.

Yan referred to Shenzhen as “the city of dreams”. It is known to embrace diversity and value talent. The municipal government’s “Peacock Plan” provides generous housing allowances and research subsidies to talent from top universities around the world.
Yan’s move may have a further impact. The institution she will be involved in founding is a bold attempt at building a multifunctional medical academy, inspired by the National Institutes of Health in the US. The academy aims to establish a diversified and innovative funding mechanism with a high level of administrative autonomy. By recruiting high-calibre overseas scholars and funding projects globally, Yan and the new academy may have a profound impact on research in China in the long run.

Dr Yuehai Xiao, professor, and Tianyu Zhang, undergraduate student, department of English, Hunan Normal University

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