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Opening Doors In China

Trailblazing program devised by William von Eggers Doering opened the West to Chinese chemists

by Amanda Yarnell
October 27, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 43

Credit: Amanda Yarnell/C&EN
Credit: Amanda Yarnell/C&EN

HARVARD UNIVERSITY organic chemist William von E. Doering is a chemical legend. He is credited with, among other things, paving a route to quinine, pioneering carbene chemistry, and nailing down the mechanism of the Cope rearrangement. But his most important chemical legacy may well be his least celebrated and most lasting one: Opening China's then-insular chemistry and chemistry education communities to the West in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.

During that period of political upheaval, which stretched from 1966 to 1976, most universities were closed in China, many teachers were forced to abandon their posts, and few people were allowed to go abroad. As a consequence, Doering says, Chinese chemistry professors "lost contact with the many revolutionary changes going on in the understanding of organic chemistry that had been occurring in the Western world" during that time—for example, the way chemists began thinking about organic reactions in terms of mechanism.

Hoping to help modernize chemical education in China, Doering hatched the idea for the China-U.S. Chemistry Graduate Program (CGP), or "Doering program." During the program, which was coordinated by Doering and Fudan University faculty and supported by the Chinese Ministry of Education, nearly 250 Chinese chemistry students traveled to the U.S. and Canada between 1982 and 1986 to pursue Ph.D.s. Doering and Chinese officials alike hoped these students would return to reinvigorate chemical education in China.

Over the years, roughly 30 of them have come back to China. Some of these returnees have been instrumental in reforming and modernizing Chinese chemical education, says Xiaoyuan Li, a CGP alum who in 1991 helped found the chemistry department at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST), where he is now a full professor. As an example, he points to fellow CGP alum and Chinese Academy of Sciences member Lansun Zheng of Xiamen University. After completing his Ph.D. work in the late Richard E. Smalley's lab at Rice University, Zheng returned to Xiamen, his alma mater, in 1986. There, he managed to modernize the school's inorganic chemistry curriculum and pioneer the study of fullerenes and other carbon clusters in China.

In addition, a few returning CGP fellows made their mark on China's chemical industry. For example, CGP alum Haito Zhang returned to his native Guangdong in 1993 after receiving his Ph.D. from Northwestern University and completing postdocs at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the University of California, San Diego. "I wanted to do something for China, and I knew I wanted to work in industry," he says. Back home he joined Sinopec, a state-owned petrochemical company, where he established a research institute focusing on polymer chemistry and processing and later contributed to the development of one of China's largest ethylene crackers. He is now chief engineer at Guangdong Sunion Chemical & Plastic, a privately owned manufacturer of plastics and fine chemicals.

Meanwhile, many CGP participants chose to remain in North America, seeing few opportunities back home to do the kind of independent, cutting-edge research that had inspired them in graduate school. Others chose to remain in the U.S. because their families wanted to stay or for financial reasons. And some decided to stay put because of the political and social turmoil in China in the late 1980s.

MANY OF THOSE who chose to remain have become leaders in both the academic and industry worlds in the U.S. Some travel frequently between the U.S. and China, collaborating with academic and industry colleagues in their home country. And a growing number have returned to China in the past decade, eager to take advantage of the business and teaching opportunities offered by their homeland's burgeoning economy. This trend suggests that China will see further returns from the long-retired program in the years to come, Li says.

Catching Up
Credit: Yongsheng Wang/CGP Doering Foundation
Former CGP fellows gathered to hear about their colleagues' current work at a symposium this summer in Doering's honor at the Chinese Chemical Society national meeting in Tianjin.
Credit: Yongsheng Wang/CGP Doering Foundation
Former CGP fellows gathered to hear about their colleagues' current work at a symposium this summer in Doering's honor at the Chinese Chemical Society national meeting in Tianjin.

CGP "changed the landscape of chemistry forever," says American Chemical Society President Bruce E. Bursten, who served on Ohio State University's graduate admissions committee in 1982 when the program started. Before that, vanishingly few Chinese students came to the U.S. The program, along with similar ones in physics and biology, marked the turn of that tide. In 2007, more than 6,000 Chinese foreign nationals were doing graduate work in the physical sciences in the U.S., according to data from the Bureau of Citizenship & Immigration Services.

Even though the CGP program brought fewer than 250 students to North America, "it opened a big gate for tens of thousands of Chinese students to pursue advanced studies in the U.S.," according to Guanxian Xu, a chemistry professor at Peking University who played a key role in convincing the Chinese government to sponsor the CGP program. Even today, "the first choice for most of our undergraduate students here is still to continue their Ph.D. study in the U.S.," adds Liangbing Gan, a chemistry professor at Peking University who did his Ph.D. at the University of Alberta through the CGP program.

Before the CGP program, Doering notes, few Chinese had any idea how to apply to a U.S. graduate program. "Its biggest effect," he says, "was to show that this opportunity was available."

NOW 91, Doering first stepped foot on Chinese soil in 1980, two years after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched his famous "open-door policy" which, among other new freedoms, permitted Chinese scientists to travel abroad and foreign scientists to travel to China.

Doering had been invited to Fudan University in Shanghai to help organic chemistry faculty from across China modernize their courses. Forty professors showed up for his course, which stretched from morning until afternoon for 12 weeks. But in the end, "without exception, they agreed that there was no way such a course could be taught to Chinese undergraduate students," Doering recalls. Discouraged by this reception, Doering decided to try a different tack and focus his efforts on graduate education. "We needed to train a new generation," he says.

And so the Doering program was born. With the help of Fudan chemistry professor Jigong Xu, Doering drew up a plan for bringing Chinese students to the U.S. and Canada for graduate study. Under the plan, which was approved and supported by the Chinese Ministry of Education, CGP fellows were selected from a dozen Chinese universities by way of a grueling gauntlet of exams coordinated by a team led by Xide Xie, a noted physicist and Fudan's president. Doering then took personal responsibility for finding them homes in two dozen or so of the top chemistry departments in the U.S. and Canada.

Some U.S. faculty members initially expressed concern that the Chinese students would not be well enough prepared. But those concerns proved unfounded, Doering notes. "Of the 242 kids who came, not a single one failed a course here," he says.

Doering reluctantly terminated the program in 1986 after the Chinese education ministry announced that it would dramatically cut its share of the funding. But by that time, many Chinese students had learned from CGP and other programs how to apply to graduate school in the U.S. Meanwhile, those running graduate programs in the U.S. had grown impressed with the students China had to offer. The Doering program opened the door; other programs then pushed it wider and wider.

For the Doering fellows, the opportunity to come to the U.S. had a transformative effect, both personally and professionally.

"CGP changed my life, as it did the lives of many others," says HKUST organic chemist Yundong Wu, who grew rice and raised pigs in the coastal province of Jiangsu during the waning years of the Cultural Revolution before studying chemistry at Lanzhou University. When the CGP program brought him to the U.S. in 1982 to do his Ph.D. work with Ken Houk at the University of Pittsburgh, it was "an opportunity of a lifetime," says Wu, who is now a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "The U.S. was something we could not imagine at the time."

The program "gave me exposure to the real world and the most developed country out there early in my career," adds Wu's HKUST colleague Li, who grew up in mainland China and studied chemistry as an undergraduate at Peking University before landing a coveted CGP slot and coming to the U.S. There, Li joined Thomas G. Spiro's lab at Princeton University, where he used Raman spectroscopy to study model compounds of heme proteins. The experience "opened up my eyes and mind, broadened my perspective, and reshaped my outlook about the world and life at large," Li says.

Doering's "visionary effort taught me that as a chemist I sometimes have to look at issues beyond my own career and personal interests in order to push forward the development of chemistry education as a whole," Li continues. Inspired by Doering's actions, he and his wife have helped sponsor programs to help kids in underdeveloped regions of China continue their education.

"The CGP program gave me an opportunity to study under some of the world's best minds in chemistry," adds Dan Yang, an organic chemist and chemical biologist who grew up in a remote mountainous area in Sichuan and attended Fudan before doing her graduate work at Columbia University and Princeton as a CGP fellow. After a brief postdoctoral stint at Harvard, she joined the chemistry faculty at the University of Hong Kong in 1993.

Yang says she was drawn to Hong Kong because it "had some of the conditions for basic research" and because its proximity to mainland China would allow her to help foster cutting-edge chemistry research back home.

With China now ripe with academic and industrial opportunities for chemists, Yang suggests that her birthplace has yet to feel the program's full impact. "As time goes by, some CGP alums may find their experiences have higher value in mainland China than elsewhere and may relocate back to mainland China," she predicts.

That's what Kang Zhao did. He returned to China in 2001 after starting his academic career as an assistant professor of organic chemistry at New York University. Zhao was drawn back by the opportunity to found Tianjin University's School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology. "This is a chance that is not always there for everyone," says Zhao, who serves as dean of the college, home to 30 faculty members and nearly 250 undergrads, while still running a research group focused on using hydroxyl amines for constructing heterocyclic compounds. Zhao credits his success in his role as a dean to the CGP program because it "gave me an opportunity to become a real teacher who can do both science and teaching at the same time."

Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Doering talked with Yi-Jing Yan of Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and many other former CGP alums in Tianjin.
Credit: Jean-François Tremblay/C&EN
Doering talked with Yi-Jing Yan of Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and many other former CGP alums in Tianjin.

Another former CGP fellow recently drawn back to China is Zhengyu Yuan. Yuan is president and chief executive officer of MicuRx Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company with R&D operations focused on antimicrobial discovery in both Union City, Calif., and Shanghai. The former CGP fellow founded MicuRx in 2006 after a long and successful career in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries in the U.S. "After my Ph.D. I wanted to work in the pharmaceutical industry, and that meant staying in the U.S.," Yuan says. Now he hopes to contribute to the growth of the Chinese drug discovery industry by splitting his time between the two countries.

Yuan and other CGP alums recently established the CGP Doering Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to continuing the work the CGP program started. "Our aim is to enhance ties between chemists in the U.S. and China," says Tao Guo, the organization's president and CEO. Guo, a former CGP fellow who is the director of chemistry at Princeton, N.J.-based drug firm Pharmacopeia, says the foundation is now working to set up lectureship tours in which prominent young chemists travel to each other's countries.

Most former CGP fellows initially "contributed to Western society" and not to China as originally intended, acknowledges New York University chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr., a former student of Doering's who advised a CGP fellow while at Princeton. "But they all retained their ties to home," and as time passed the situation changed in China, he says. "Many of those CGP students are now either back in China or move back and forth frequently. They are finally having an impact on Chinese society. Perhaps it is not exactly what was originally intended, but it is substantial nonetheless."


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