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Xiaodong Wang, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Despite the sometimes difficult transitions, many of those students succeeded with the help of talent, hard work, and American mentors. “We were nurtured and cultivated by our professors,” recalls Xu, who landed a fellowship at Yale within a year of his arrival in New York and was soon using fruit flies as a model organism to decipher the roles of genes in neural development.
Excited by his early success, Xu called his mother in China and explained that he was making a name for himself in America by studying flies. After a long pause, she said: “Son, we have lots of flies right here in our hometown.”
On the corner of Xu's desk sits a stack of books about famous American medical innovators. “I want to see how this country built up biomedical research,” he says, looking for a template for potential reforms in China.
In the field of medical research, Xu sees parallels between pre-World War I America and today's China. A century ago, while the United States was becoming a world power, its universities and biomedical research lagged behind Europe. Thousands of young Americans went to Britain, Germany, and France for their graduate or medical studies and to learn the research techniques of the great European masters.
Eventually, American university innovators—including pathologist William H. Welch, who built the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine into a research powerhouse, and Abraham Flexner, whose 1910 report led to fundamental reforms of U.S. medical schools—combined lessons from Europe with their own ideas to create what has become the world's leading biomedical research complex.
“Like America in those years, China is on the cusp of great advances in science and technology,” says Xu. “One of my dreams is to set up a new university in China that would teach innovation and would be modeled on some of the most effective research institutions in the West.”
Before that happens in China, however, plenty of work needs to be done. In the meantime, numerous initiatives are under way to deepen scientific ties between China and America. After China began to reform its economy, the nation stepped up its efforts to convince top expatriate scientists to return home. In 1998, the education ministry's Changjiang Scholars Program started offering incentives for expatriates to do research and to teach at universities in China. After many targeted researchers in the United States said they had little interest in returning to China full time, the program was altered in 2006 to include some senior scientists on a part-time basis.
In 2009, China's central government started an ambitious program called Qianren Jihua, or the Thousand-Person Plan. The goal is to recruit as many as 2,000 top Chinese-born scientists, financial experts, and entrepreneurs back to China over the next decade.
One of the most influential U.S.-trained scientists who has announced plans to return permanently to China is Wang, who plans to move to Beijing this summer as he begins his second stint—after 5 years in a part-time, long-distance capacity—as the director of China's National Institute of Biological Sciences. The institute started from scratch a few years ago under a mostly Western model and now boasts 23 labs and 500 scientists—nearly all its principal investigators did their Ph.D. and/or postdoc work in the United States.
Wang says he has reached a point in his life “when it's time to give back” to his native country. “And there are great opportunities in China today.” Xu expresses similar sentiments about his inner need to help young scientists in China—especially out of gratitude to his early inspiration to professors at Fudan, who “opened up a new world of science for me.”
Photo: Wang: Matt Rainwaters