China's Potential

Xiaodong Wang grew up in Henan Province in the middle of China and was raised by his grandparents, who were teachers. The Cultural Revolution ended just as he finished middle school. He got his initial degree in biology at Beijing Normal University and was selected in 1985 under Ray Wu's program to attend grad school at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, where he got his Ph.D. and has worked ever since, except for a year at Emory University.

Six years ago, the Chinese government—based on a proposal from Singapore-based scientists—started building a new biomedical research institute in Beijing with a different approach than the traditional Academy of Sciences institutes. When the Singapore group withdrew after clashing with authorities, leading Chinese scientists contacted Xiaodong “and asked if I'd be interested in leading the institute,” the National Institute of Biological Sciences (NIBS).

“I went there in 2003 and they named me as co-director,” he recalls. “I had originally planned to move to Beijing full time that year but I was not willing to give up my research in the U.S. So I decided to do it only part time, on a pro bono basis, and have worked in Beijing a total of two or three months a year since then.”

Wang has focused mainly on recruiting expat scientists from the U.S. and helping set up the academic infrastructure and graduate program. But now that his first 5-year term as co-director is ending, he realized that “to get to the point where I would be proud of my work, I would need to be in Beijing full time.”

He says China's rapid economic development has freed up resources for an excellent new generation of science students. “The institute is really taking off now, with 23 labs and 500 scientists. I think they are doing research as good as anyone else in the world in areas such as pathogen-host interactions.”

NIBS differs from other Chinese institutes because it is interdisciplinary, has a merit-based selection process, channels resources to the best scientists, and collaborates with local universities so Ph.D. students do research there, Wang says. Nearly all of those scientists did their Ph.D. or postdoc work in the U.S.

“In this new institute, like at HHMI, we bet on people rather than projects,” he says. “You often can't predict how the science will go and where a project will lead. So you bet on the scientists who have a great record of research. And you try to support bright young researchers.”

- Robert Koenig
HHMI Bulletin, February 2010

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