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May 25, 2019

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China’s rising young scientists will help shape the future of our world

WHAT are scientists? They are often stereotyped as gray-haired white-coated dull pedants.

But the world has changed. Young innovators are making their voices heard and unleashing their powers on the world stage.

China has embraced the trend. The “post-90s generation,” a term to describe those born between 1990 and 2000, is emerging as source of science stars.

Rising stars include new materials expert Gong Yongji, the youngest doctoral supervisor at the Beihang University. Aged 28 in 2017, he was featured on Forbes China’s “30 Under 30 China” list that honored 30 rising figures under the age of 30.

University professor Liu Mingzhen published an article related to solar energy in one of the world’s top academic journals “Nature” in 2013 when she was just 23, becoming the youngest female Chinese scholar to do so.

At the age of 28 in 2018, biologist Wan Ruixue was honored as one of the four winners of the 2018 Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists, a global prize to reward outstanding scientists at an early stage of their careers.

As an outstanding young innovator, Wan has been invited by the Pujiang Innovation Forum as a speaker this year for a special sub-forum at which 10 young scientists and entrepreneurs will share their views of the future.

She focuses mainly on biomedicine and artificial intelligence.

“Both are cutting-edge technologies at an early stage of development,” she said.

“So, I think they have great potential to be developed. I think in the study of cutting-edge technologies, like my major of structural biology, China and other leading countries in the world are standing on same starting line. And in the study of structural biology, China is likely to become leader.”

She felt it was her destiny to become a biologist.

“I grew interested in the natural world, like flowers and insects, when I was very young,” she said. “When I studied biology at school, it greatly touched me. I felt it’s of lot of fun, so mysterious and amazing.”

In 2009, she entered the Sun Yat-sen University to do research on marine resources and environment.

In her third year at the university, she started to think what she really wanted to do, and she realized that she wanted to do something related to biomedicine. So, in her last year, she emailed China’s top biologist Shi Yigong, hoping to join his lab at the Tsinghua University.

Shi recognized her talent and welcomed her. Now, Wan is a post-doctoral student majoring in structural biology at Tsinghua.

Years of effort at the lab have paid off. Her research on the high-definition 3D structure of spliceosome led to a scientific breakthrough.

A spliceosome is a large and complex molecular machine made up of proteins and found primarily within the nucleus of eukaryotic cells. It does the genetic cutting and pasting in our bodies, a very important step in the procedure of turning DNA into proteins.

If spliceosome cut in the wrong place, leaving the junk DNA but removing useful DNA, it will sicken people. Study shows about 35 percent of the genetic disorders are related to spliceosome.

So, it’s of vital importance to discern the structure of spliceosome, but it’s extremely challenging and was widely regarded as an impossible mission. Spliceosome, like hyperactive transformers, are too active and changeable to be monitored.

But Wan managed to freeze them and obtain a high-definition 3D image of the structure. Her research can help treat genetic problems such as Mediterranean anemia and various cancers.

“By understanding proteins, we can know the causes of diseases and cure some incurable diseases,” Wan told Shanghai Daily. “It is my goal and I will continue my research.”

Unlike many of other young scientists who choose to pursue further study abroad, Wan currently has no plan to go overseas.

“The whole ecosystem for scientific research is continually improving in China,” she said, adding the country has great science facilities.

One, the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility, known as the “Shanghai light source,” has greatly supported her in discerning crystal structures of proteins. It uses “synchrotron radiation” technology to create beams that are hundreds of millions of times brighter than a normal X-ray, and allows researchers to discern the structure of a virus, a protein and even an atom.

Also, she felt that China is placing greater emphasis on fostering “Made in China” talent by increasing investment. “Now, more and more overseas students are coming back,” she said.


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