Cell Biology in China: An Interview with Xuebiao Yao

The last decade in China has witnessed great momentum in the development of science and technology, including molecular and cell biology research. Key discoveries have been made in areas ranging from signaling and epigenetics to stem cells. Underlying the exciting milestones marked by scientists in China are both steady support and ample funding opportunities. Over the last decade, there has been more than a 10% annual increase in research funding from the two major funding agencies in China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) and Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). Meanwhile, the appreciation for both basic and translational research, manifested as various talent recruitment programs orchestrated by the central government and competitive matching packages provided by each host institution, has been attractive to large numbers of talented scientists outside China.

The School of Life Sciences at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). Located at the fast growing metropolitan city of Hefei, USTC is one of the many top research institutions in China that welcome ambitious young scientists around the world to start their own independent careers. (Image courtesy of Wenyu Pan, School of Life Sciences, USTC)

Xuebiao Yao has been one of the strongest advocates for recruiting overseas talent at various career levels to China. After earning his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and completing a postdoctoral fellowship at University of California, San Diego, Yao returned to China in the late ’90s as a member of the first set of 73 Cheung Kong Scholars supported by the Li Ka Shing Foundation. There, he established the Laboratory of Cellular Dynamics at The University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) – a top research university under the direct leadership of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he is an NSFC Outstanding Young Scientist and professor of cell biology.  Yao’s team has made a series of seminal discoveries over the years, deepening our understanding of the molecular and chemical nature underlying accurate mitotic chromosome segregation, cell migration, and breast cancer metastasis. Yao has been serving on the ASCB International Affairs Committee and has been the voice of China’s cell biology community, advocating the exciting opportunities in cell biology research in China at recent annual meetings of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). At the beginning of 2017, I called Yao in his lab to learn more about his insights on the latest cell biology job market in China.

(CL: Chenshu Liu, XY:  Xuebiao Yao)

CL: What is the biggest talent recruitment initiative in China right now?

XY: Currently, probably the most comprehensive recruiting initiative in China is the Young Thousand Talent recruitment program, which is an umbrella program aiming to recruit to China thousands of outstanding rising stars under the age of 40 with at least four consecutive years of work experience overseas. The program was initiated by the Chinese central government in 2010, and the selection and peer review process have been conducted by the NSFC in recent years. Applicants around the world can apply to this award to help start up their own labs in China at a sponsor institution of their choice. So far 13 rounds of applications have been awarded, and approximately 1,000 scholars have been brought into China through this channel. The latest round of recruitment last October received 3,048 applications from all disciplines and had a success rate of 19.7%.

CL: What’s in store for the Young Thousand Talent recruitment program this coming year?

XY: In the six years since the launch of this program, many talented junior scientists (mostly postdoctoral fellows working at oversea institutions) have come to China to build their own labs. It’s been running very well, but in the future this program will become more focused on the synergism between the applicants’ expertise and the particular needs of host institutions. In other words, the Young Thousand Talent program will focus its support on those applicants who combine their expertise and align their research interests to the needs of prospective host institutions. The geographical distribution of host institutions will also likely change. Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai already show signs of saturation, which suggests a potential decrease in the rate of talent recruitment in those cities in the future. However, there is a fairly good chance that a higher recruitment rate will be found elsewhere, for instance in central China, as aligned with the nation’s strategic priorities.

CL: You mentioned the needs of the host institution. Is there any indication of a higher demand or need for translational research over basic research in China?

XY: Great synergy can be achieved if the prospective candidate’s background aligns strategically with the areas of science or technology that an institution or department aims to strategically develop. It does not necessarily indicate a complete shift of support from basic science to applied/translational research. However, based on the strategic priorities of MOST and the National High-Tech R&D Program, translational research and new technology development are being sought more than before. Compared with the last decade, when about 90% of research activities funded were fundamental research, now about one-third of the total funded projects could be translational.

CL: For applicants interested in translational research, how is their merit evaluated after they apply to the Young Thousand Talent program?

XY: Applications are rigorously reviewed in a way similar to the K99/R00 application at NIH. Unlike applicants in the fields of basic science whose academic achievements can be best assessed by publications in top journals, applications in the fields of technology and translational research will be assessed comprehensively by varied metrics such as existing patents and overseas experience in launching startups, etc.

CL: You also mentioned longer term plans and grant applications after starting one’s own lab through the Young Thousand Talent program. Can you elaborate on that?

XY: The Young Thousand Talent program provides an essential part in the startup fund and will continue to support the lab’s research and the PI’s salary/benefits (which is very competitive) through its funding mechanisms [fund from central government + matched fund from local government and/or institution]. Depending on the hosting institutes, the PI’s scientific performance will be reviewed four to six years after starting the lab. Contract of appointment with the host university/institution will be renewed contingent on an individual’s performance. At some point during the first few years, the PI will need to apply for extramural funding (e.g., through NSFC or MOST), and the secured extramural funds will support the lab after the startup funds are depleted. The ability to secure external grants, therefore, constitutes an integral part of growth as a junior PI, and also will be evaluated in addition to publications.

CL: What happens if the PI doesn’t pass the performance review?

XY: In certain cases he/she has to leave the institution, and this actually has happened. In other cases a grace period might be granted depending on specific host institutions.

CL: What is it like to apply for an external grant in China? Is the grant proposal written in Chinese?

XY (laugh): If the PI is Chinese the proposal will be in Chinese; if the PI is a non-Chinese speaker, the proposal can be written in English. The grant application is pretty similar to that of NIH where peer review determines the scientific merit of the proposals. In recent years, the general quality of grant proposals in China is similar to that of R21 in the US. The most prestigious ones (outstanding young scientist award or key project grant, like the NIH MERIT award) have success rates of 3% – 5%, while the regular 4-year NSFC grant (similar to the investigator-initiated NIH R01) has maintained a 20% success rate in recent years. However, unlike the NIH R01 applications, the NSFC grant applications are received once per year and proposal quality has increased in recent years.

CL: Apart from grant cycle, what are some other differences between China and the West?

XY: Every profession in China, including science, is steeped in Chinese culture. Therefore, a mentoring system, in which experienced PIs help newcomers familiarize themselves with the differences and jump-start their careers by focusing on doing good science, can be helpful.  China does not suffer from some of the problems currently affecting the West, especially that of too many biomedical PhDs for the academic job market. Also, most of the labs in China nowadays are relying on PhD students as the powerhouse for everyday research activities.

CL: Given the differences in research culture between the West and China, what’s your advice for any young biologist interested in establishing his/her own lab in China?

XY: Postdoctoral fellows who obtained their higher education in China and received further training overseas should get in touch with institutions such as their alma mater or colleagues such as previous advisors or collaborators to obtain timely information. Scientists with foreign nationalities and/or many years of overseas experience who are interested in moving to China to start their independent careers should talk to potential hiring institutes or colleagues during international conferences. It is important for them to consider the cultural/environmental differences and determine their comfort level. Not unlike the rest of the world, in China, active interactions with your peers often provide great opportunities for development for both your career and your science.

In general, the key is to find your niche where both the “hardware” and “software” of your host institute will become your scientific allies. And your background and expertise, in turn, will synergize with others at your host institution to bring out the best science for the world to see.

Author note:

While having touched upon several aspects of the current molecular and cell biology research communities in China, my conversation with Xuebiao Yao was primarily focused on the current job market for postdoctoral fellows seeking (independent) academic positions in China. For more information about opportunities at other career levels (e.g., established PI in the West seeking international collaboration funds), please refer to this Perspective article, which discusses in detail how scientific activities are organized and funded in China, as well as China’s key achievements in the field of molecular and cell biology over the last decade. I also wish to thank Tian Xue, acting dean of the School of Life Sciences, USTC for comments on this article.

Funding resources mentioned include:

NSFC (http://www.nsfc.gov.cn/publish/portal1/)

MOST (http://www.most.gov.cn/eng/programmes1/)

Plan1000 (which includes the Young Thousand Talent recruitment program, http://www.1000plan.org/en/)

About the Author:

Chenshu Liu is a postdoctoral fellow in Abby Dernburg’s lab at University of California Berkeley investigating chromosome dynamics in C.elegans. He earned his PhD with Yinghui Mao at Columbia University studying centromere maintenance in cultured human cells. Chenshu co-organized the ‘New York Symposium on Quantitative Biology of the Cell’ in Jan 2016, and has been a COMPASS member since March 2016. His email address is lcs@berkeley.edu