Eyeing The Move Back To China | March 24, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 12 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 12 | pp. 20-24
Issue Date: March 24, 2008

Eyeing The Move Back To China

Chinese-born chemists confront difficult choices when they consider moving back to their country
Department: Business
Balancing Act
Many returnees must balance work aspirations with family responsibilities.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Balancing Act
Many returnees must balance work aspirations with family responsibilities.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

WHEN BIN XU visited his family in Shanghai in 2003 after three years away, he was stunned by how much the city had progressed. Even though Xu had an exciting and well-paying job as a group leader at a drug discovery company in New York City, he vowed to return to live in his hometown, a place that was evidently turning into a world-class metropolis.

Within two years, he made good on his plan. Xu, who holds a Ph.D. from Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry and did postdoctoral work at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, is now a professor of chemistry at Shanghai University, a 15-year-old institution that is fast earning a reputation as one of the best schools in China. Xu says he returned to be closer to his parents and to take an academic position where he would work on his own research rather than someone else's. His eight-member research group has already published papers in internationally recognized journals.

"I might not have returned if there weren't so many opportunities in Shanghai," Xu says. In the U.S., he believes, switching from a private-sector job to an academic one would have been difficult. And even if he succeeded in making the switch, he thinks it would have taken longer to establish his own research group.

Kai Lamottke, a cofounder of the Sino-German drug discovery company Bicoll, says he's surprised that Xu, whom he knows, decided to return to Shanghai. "He is a scientist of high caliber, and he could have done well just staying in the U.S.," Lamottke says.

Thousands of Chinese-born chemists are leaving the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan to return to China after successful years abroad. For many of these scientists, the journey home was harder than they had anticipated. Before they leave, they must consider difficult questions. And once in China, they often face unforeseen challenges.

In the past three years, John V. Oyler, chief executive officer of the drug discovery services company BioDuro, has interviewed dozens of Chinese chemists living in the U.S. and offered many of them jobs at the company's Beijing research lab. He says his prospective recruits want to return to China in part to be closer to their parents. "This sense of duty toward the family, it's a lovely part of the Chinese culture," Oyler says.

More important, however, potential recruits are drawn by the opportunity to pursue world-class drug discovery research in China, a country where such activities are gathering momentum. Oyler notes that the caliber of drug discovery scientists who decide to move to China is rising and that this trend is encouraging other high-caliber scientists to follow them.

WHEREAS Oyler has succeeded in convincing many scientists to pack up for Beijing, he also has been turned down numerous times. He recalls recently offering a job to an outstanding medicinal chemist who is also mother to an eight-year-old child. The tentative plan was for her husband and child to remain in the U.S. while she worked in China.

But "she could not face the idea of waking up every day, thousands of miles away from her daughter," Oyler says. If a job candidate decides not to move to China, he observes, it's often because the spouse objects. Xu, the Shanghai University professor, says the decision to move back was made easier because he was single at the time.

Some Chinese chemists have found a way to raise a family in the U.S. and at the same time build a successful career in China. James S. Ma, founder of the chemistry services firm PepTech Corp., has been shuttling back and forth between Burlington, Mass., and Shanghai for the past 13 years. His company has 150 employees in China and two in the U.S. Ma says PepTech's R&D and manufacturing facilities are in Shanghai because it costs less to operate there than in the U.S.

Ma, who has been handling customer service and business development from Burlington, says he plans to move to China either this year or next year to better oversee the growth of his operations there. "Once the company reaches a certain size, it's difficult to manage remotely," he says, noting that he plans to hire 60 more employees in Shanghai by the end of the year. "I need to be in China to provide the motivation to people there and also help guide the company's growth."

Ma (right) will move to Shanghai to oversee the growth of his 13-year-old company; Zhang (left) is among a growing number of graduate students who want to return to China.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN (left), Courtesy of Ziyan Zhang
Ma (right) will move to Shanghai to oversee the growth of his 13-year-old company; Zhang (left) is among a growing number of graduate students who want to return to China.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN (left), Courtesy of Ziyan Zhang

Ma acknowledges that his company might have expanded more quickly if he had moved to China earlier. He doesn't regret his decision, however, because an earlier move might have disrupted his children's education or deprived him of the pleasure of watching them grow up if his kids had stayed in the U.S. Ma says he knows people who left young children behind to take jobs in China, only to find the kids no longer recognized them when they returned. "That's very sad," he says. "I did not want that to happen."

Ma's daughter is now 10 and his son is 13. His wife, a computer programmer, plans to stay in the U.S. until the children go to college. Meanwhile, Ma will continue to shuttle back and forth between Burlington and Shanghai.

It's not uncommon for Chinese chemists to move to China without their families. At the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park in Shanghai, chemists interviewed by C&EN claim that, in fact, the majority of those who have moved there from abroad have come without their spouses and children. Returnees living in Shanghai have even coined the nickname "seagulls" to describe those who crisscross the Pacific to meet both family and work obligations.

DECIDING TO live away from one's family is often a traumatic event-so much so that many returnees decide to return to the U.S. after a few years in China. Xu observes that although the quality of life in Shanghai is improving rapidly, the city still has a ways to go before it's as good a place to live as the U.S.

William Lee, CEO of Shanghai Biolaxy Biomedical Science & Technology, is in Shanghai without his family. Although he has lived in Shanghai since 2004, he says his real home is in San Diego, where his wife and two daughters live. "You know, it's hard. My family was actually evacuated during the forest fires in California last year," he recalls. But he says his family understands the importance of his work. In particular, his nine-year-old daughter believes her dad is in China making discoveries that "will change people's lives."

Lee is among the many Chinese chemists for whom stories of better career opportunities back home have lived up to their promise. A native of Tianjin, Lee obtained his undergraduate degree from Tianjin's Nankai University. He then moved to the U.S. and received a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the Medical College of Ohio, in Toledo. From 1992 to 1995, he worked as a researcher at Parke-Davis in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then moved to San Diego to become an entrepreneur.

Lee's expertise is in the production of recombinant proteins. While living in San Diego, his primary job was to develop production processes that he licensed to Chinese companies. It wasn't a good business, he says, because few firms in China are willing to pay a decent price for technology. "In the end, after years in business, I ended up relying on my wife's salary," he says.

He changed his business plan and decided to move to China to implement it. A venture capital company, Singapore-based BioVeda, had agreed to fund his efforts to develop a nanoparticle system for delivering drugs orally. Candidate drugs include insulin, interferons, and the growth hormone erythropoietin.

In Lee's view, venture capitalists are more enthusiastic about funding research in China than they are about similar projects in the U.S. In the U.S., he says, the cost of pursuing research has risen so much that few projects seem worth the risk. "The traditional drug development model is in some ways broken," Lee observes.

Things seem to be going better for Lee now than when he was working in San Diego. He notes that one major drug company recently signed a nondisclosure agreement for the right to study his technology and says several others are interested. While in Shanghai, Lee raised additional funding from investors to pursue his research.

Hongping Yu, a research investigator at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research in Shanghai, has also found more exciting opportunities in China than he encountered in the West. Yu spent 11 years in Canada, where he earned a Ph.D. and then did a postdoc at the University of British Columbia. He subsequently worked as a medicinal chemist at Merck-Frosst in the Montreal suburb of Kirkland.

Yu had planned on settling down in Montreal, but one day, a Chinese neighbor said his company was sending him back to China. The announcement jolted Yu into considering the possibility that Montreal may not be such a great place for him and his family. In fact, Quebec's language laws are such that, unless both parents attended English schools in the province, a child can attend only public schools that are taught in French. Unless Yu forked out the expensive fees for an English private school, he would not be able to help his four-year-old son with his homework later on.

ON THE PROFESSIONAL front, even though Merck-Frosst is one of Canada's prized employers, the company has been growing slowly in recent years, limiting the scope for rapid career advancement. "One thing I got from Merck-Frosst is excellent training as a medicinal chemist," Yu says.

Surfing the Internet, Yu discovered a growing number of pharmaceutical R&D centers in China. He applied to Novartis and was interviewed in Cambridge, Mass. When he moved to Shanghai last April, it was the first time in 11 years that he had set foot on his native land. "I had no idea what to expect," Yu recalls.

Like Lee, Yu is advancing in his career faster in China than he was in Montreal. He is in the process of setting up his own research lab, a responsibility that would have eluded him for years if he had stayed in Canada.

Ironically, Yu, whose wife gave birth to a daughter a few weeks ago, faces new dilemmas in China involving the education of his children. Because Yu settled in China as a Canadian citizen, his children face certain bureaucratic hurdles before they can attend Chinese public schools. There are also many international schools in Shanghai, but they cost a steep $20,000 to $30,000 in fees annually, Yu says.

Although it weighs on him, the school situation has not derailed Yu's plan to settle down in China. "There are still some issues to be resolved, but we'd like to stay here indefinitely," he says. Yu believes he is among the lucky few returnees whose entire family, with the exception of a sister-in-law in Montreal, is in China.

Yuwen Liu, executive vice president of the Bio & Nano Technology Development Corp. at Singapore Industrial Park in Suzhou, says returnees may take a while to hit their stride in China. "Returnees who have been abroad a long time no longer know how things work in China, so initially, they are often less productive than the locals," Liu says. The transition period can last up to two years.

She also points out that scientists who stay abroad for many years lose their network of friends and contacts in China. BioDuro's Oyler says one of his key Chinese-born employees told him that it took an entire year after he had started working in China before he began to feel really productive.

Lone quest
Lee left his family in San Diego to oversee a Shanghai-based company that develops oral drug delivery techniques. "It's hard," he says.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Lone quest
Lee left his family in San Diego to oversee a Shanghai-based company that develops oral drug delivery techniques. "It's hard," he says.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN

Liu has observed that Chinese-born scientists living on the U.S. West Coast are more likely to move to China than those on the East Coast. The reason, she believes, is that the easterners tend to work for big pharmaceutical companies. They have a comfortable, well-compensated existence and stand to lose part of their pensions if they leave their jobs. In contrast, scientists on the West Coast are often entrepreneurs or work for small firms. For them, starting anew is a way of life.

ENTREPRENEURS and industrial researchers are not the only ones to view China as a land of opportunity. Yigong Shi, Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, will move to China this year to head the biological sciences department at his alma mater, Tsinghua University.

Asked why he's giving up his prestigious post at Princeton, Shi answers that his motivations are complex. He wants to help China build a better environment for biological research and at the same time fight the "glass ceiling" that he says Asian Americans face in the U.S. "I view myself as a fighter," Shi says. "My reason for returning to China is not to give up the fight but to take up another opportunity. I feel that my future success in China will also fight the glass ceiling issue indirectly here in the States."

Shi says his decision to move shocked many friends and colleagues. "In many people's judgment, I really have no reason whatsoever to go back to China," he acknowledges. "In the end, you have to balance what you want versus what other people think is the best lifestyle for you."

Shi is trading a 5,000-sq-ft home financed by Princeton for a 1,600-sq-ft apartment in Beijing. His wife, a biologist at Johnson & Johnson, and his four-year-old twins will remain in the U.S. for the next two years while he gets settled at Tsinghua University. If all goes well, his family will move to China in early 2010.

Shi says that despite the improvement in the quality of China's largest universities, the country has had a difficult time attracting tenured science and engineering professors from the U.S. "For a country of China's scale, you're talking about just a few who have returned full-time," Shi says. "That number is really embarrassing." He believes one reason is the lack of an established system to receive these world-class scientists.

Shi explains that favoritism shown toward established returnees may draw criticism from those who moved back earlier or have spent their entire lives in China. "Social stability is extremely important for China," Shi observes. As a result, he says, returnees often face hurdles involving salary, housing, equal treatment, fringe benefits, and medical care. But Shi believes that the sacrifices he is making now will be worth it in the end.

"China is getting a crop of established investigators to return, but the pace is slow and the number is small," Shi says. "I'm convinced that if the Chinese government really goes out of its way to attract top talent, they can succeed fantastically well."

Shanghai Scholar
Xu returned to China in 2005 after five years in the U.S., where he furthered his studies and worked at a drug discovery firm.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Shanghai Scholar
Xu returned to China in 2005 after five years in the U.S., where he furthered his studies and worked at a drug discovery firm.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN

ONE GROUP that China has been able to attract in droves is recent Ph.D. graduates enticed by the unprecedented opportunity in China. Ziyan Zhang, a second-year doctoral student in chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, says she and fellow Chinese classmates frequently talk about going back to China to find jobs. This is a big contrast from just a few years ago when Chinese doctoral students were desperate to find jobs that would allow them to stay in the U.S.

It's important for those who do eventually return to set realistic expectations, says PepTech's Ma. "It used to be that someone trained in the U.S. could go back to China and find a job anywhere. That's not the case anymore," he says. "It's getting much more competitive compared to 10 years ago, both in academia and in industry."

The situation is most dire for those who can't find a job in the U.S. and think they'll have an easier time in China. "If someone goes back to China because they couldn't find a job in the U.S., I suspect they are not the best in their field," Shi says. "When they go back to China, they will also have trouble."

In recent years, according to Liu, the industrial park administrator, returning scientists with a limited amount of foreign work experience have become more realistic regarding their job expectations in China. "Their superior education does pay off over time, but they no longer expect a high salary upon their return," she says.

Although a newly minted Ph.D. can land an entry-level position in China with little to no experience, Ph.D.s hoping to secure a senior-level position in China need several years of U.S. work experience under their belts. For industry, Ma recommends at least five years of experience. Those hoping to land a scientific leadership position at a prestigious Chinese university should have five to 10 years of experience on the faculty of a U.S. research university, Shi says.

Some areas are easier than others for U.S.-trained chemists to penetrate. In the field of medicinal chemistry, BioDuro's Oyler says he has no choice but to hire people trained abroad because so few China-trained chemists have the required skills. What's more, he says he is willing to pay a premium for returnees who may not have much industry experience but who, by virtue of their time abroad, have acquired English communications skills. These returnees are also likely to have attended universities of a higher caliber than the ones in China.

For Zhang, the motive for returning to China is more personal than professional. "China is home," she says. "My family is there, my friends are there, and the environment is familiar. And, of course, the food is better." The urgency is compounded by the fact that most young Chinese scholars are their parents' only child, a result of China's one-child policy.

Zhang is also motivated by patriotism. She wants to work for a Chinese company and help expand China's pharmaceutical industry. But Zhang and other returnees stress that a desire to help China does not mean they don't care about the U.S. "We were trained in the U.S., and we have connections here," Zhang says. "We still care."

Shi agrees. "It's really important for people to realize that China's rise will not be at the sacrifice of other nations or people," he says. As a dean at Tsinghua University, he plans to promote exchanges between faculty and students at Princeton and Tsinghua. "I can help bridge the gap," Shi says.

Moving to China is not for everyone, and once there, the pressure to succeed can be enormous. "If you decide to move to China, you really have to be open-minded and you have to be able to take certain kinds of risks," PepTech's Ma says. "It's a very personal decision that could affect one's life and one's family, so it has to be well planned."

Culture Shock

A Non-Chinese Detailed To China Finds A World Of Opportunities

Linda Wang

As foreign companies expand into China, more and more non-Chinese are moving there to oversee the expansion.

Breaking Ground. Daniels attends the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Sigma-Aldrich's new Asia facility.

Credit: Sigma Aldrich Fine Chemicals

Six months ago, John Daniels of SAFC, the fine chemicals business of Sigma-Aldrich, could not have imagined that he would be moving to another country, let alone one where he didn't speak the language.

When his boss asked him to move to China to guide the development of SAFC's new Asia-Pacific manufacturing hub in Wuxi, Daniels immediately considered the impact it would have on his wife and grown children. But after talking it through with his family, he began to embrace the opportunity.

Daniels has been with Sigma-Aldrich for 35 years, and he is a director of SAFC manufacturing. He recently headed the company's development of a large-scale facility in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., so he was a natural choice to lead development of the Wuxi site.

Although Daniels' commitment is only for a year, he intends to take full advantage of the opportunity. He has already begun to take language and culture classes, and he and his wife, who will also be moving with him, plan to travel around the country. Their daughters plan to visit them over the summer. Daniels says the decision would have been more difficult if his daughters were still young.

After he returns to the U.S., the Wuxi plant will be managed and run by Chinese nationals. As for Daniels, he believes he will return with many stories to tell and a unique perspective on doing business in China.

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