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American Takes Charge In Tianjin

Well-established foreign academic takes helm of Chinese pharmaceutical school

by Jean-François Tremblay
October 28, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 43

Credit: Jean-Francois Tremblay/C&EN
Nonethnic Chinese deans such as Siegel are currently a rarity at Chinese universities.
Jay Siegel at the Tianjin University School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology.
Credit: Jean-Francois Tremblay/C&EN
Nonethnic Chinese deans such as Siegel are currently a rarity at Chinese universities.

In an unusual development for the Chinese academic world, a prominent American scientist has taken charge of a school at a major university in China. Until recently, Californian organic chemist Jay S. Siegel was based in Switzerland, but since June, he has been dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology at Tianjin University.

Siegel is not just lending his name to Tianjin and visiting for a few weeks every year. He has moved to the Chinese city and has started a profound overhaul of the school. His vision—one that he says the leaders of the university entirely support—is to turn Tianjin’s school of pharmaceutical science into a world-class fundamental drug research center staffed by faculty who may or may not be Chinese-born and where the language of education is English.

If Siegel’s efforts are successful, they will mark another milestone in China’s steadily improving ability to invent and develop new drugs. The precedent will also signal that foreign academics can function normally in China as researchers, professors, or administrators, just as foreign academics do in many other countries. “As far as I know, I am the first non-Chinese dean of a science school in China in at least 60 years,” Siegel says.

The idea that he might lead Tianjin University’s school of pharmacy first came up, casually, a little more than two years ago during a dinner in Tianjin when he was in China as a visiting professor, he says. At the time, Siegel was a professor and codirector of the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Zurich (UZH) as well as director of its laboratory for process chemistry research. “It took two years of talks, but the university administration and I came up with a common vision.”

Tianjin University At A Glance

Student population: 29,000

Faculty and staff: 4,500

History: The university was founded in 1895 by Xuanhuai Sheng, an intendant of customs, and Charles Daniel Tenney, an American educator who was living in China at the time. The school’s initial name was Peiyang University.

University motto: “Seeking truth from facts.”


Founded in 2000, the school employs about 30 faculty currently.


Nankai University, adjacent to Tianjin University.

Siegel comes to Tianjin with a vast web of international connections from having worked for years on both sides of the Atlantic. He earned his Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1986 under the supervision of Kurt Mislow and did a postdoc at Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France, in Jean-Marie Lehn’s lab. He was at the University of California, San Diego, where he became full professor of chemistry in 1996, for 17 years before moving to Zurich.

After his arrival at Tianjin University, he immediately boosted international exchanges. A group of six Chinese students are currently on a two-month exchange program at his UZH labs to get more familiar with how Western labs are equipped, operated, and managed. Soon after their return to China, four of Siegel’s students who are still at Zurich will come to Tianjin, mostly to complete their Ph.D. studies but also to get a taste of life in China.

A deeper change for Tianjin will be the hiring of international faculty. In coming years, Siegel foresees that the pharmacy school will hire about 80 new faculty, about 30 of whom, he estimates, would not be natives of China. The school currently employs about 30 academic staff. “We can offer internationally competitive packages that not many schools worldwide can outdo,” he says.

Siegel envisions a school that will contain several centers of excellence in the broad field of drug discovery and development. He imagines an “Institute for Drug Innovation & Development,” an “Institute for Molecular Design & Synthesis,” and other centers focused on other areas, including traditional Chinese medicine. Students will be exposed to the entire drug discovery and development process, Siegel claims.

To complement Siegel’s vision, the school will be guided by international advisers who will meet periodically in Tianjin. This advisory board initially comprises Michael A. Marletta, president and chief executive officer of Scripps Research Institute; Donald Hilvert, head of the organic chemistry lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich; Chris Abell, a biological chemistry professor at the University of Cambridge; William L. Jorgensen, Sterling Professor of Chemistry at Yale University; Shaomeng Wang, professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Thomas J. Meade, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University.

Credit: Courtesy of Jay Siegel
A student poses at the original gate to Tinjian University, built when it was still called Peiyang University.
In the foreground is a statue of a woman reading, in the background is a large gate. They are both made of a grey stone. A man in a white t-shirt and black shorts stands near the gate.
Credit: Courtesy of Jay Siegel
A student poses at the original gate to Tinjian University, built when it was still called Peiyang University.

“This school in Tianjin will do basic science, and basic science is what leads to new drugs,” Meade says. “Jay is combining under one roof multiple disciplines that will work together for a common purpose.” The idea, Meade says, is to implement at the Tianjin school of pharmaceutical science some of the best practices that administrators of research institutes and university departments have implemented worldwide in recent years. A priority will be to avoid setting up at the school “silos”—such as organic, inorganic, and computational chemistry—that do not interact with each other, Meade says.

Over the next few years, the school of pharmaceutical science will hire medicinal chemists, pharmacologists, pharmacokineticists, plant biologists, formulation scientists, and scientists from other related fields, Siegel envisages.

Siegel’s wife, Kim K. Baldridge, is one of the first international recruits. She will move to Tianjin in 2014. Like Siegel, she is the beneficiary of a Chinese government program called 1000 Talents that encourages accomplished scientists to move to China. An American computational chemist, Baldridge is director of the Grid Computing Competence Center at UZH.

Beyond science and technology, the school will teach and research regulatory affairs, ethics, and drug economics. The comprehensiveness of Tianjin’s program “will address a complaint among companies hiring scientists for drug discovery and development that Chinese grads aren’t knowledgeable about the field,” Siegel says.

Located a mere 80 miles southeast of Beijing, Tianjin may seem like a backwater compared with the Chinese capital or major cities such as Shanghai or Guangzhou. Yet, with a population of 13 million, it offers what one would expect to find in any major city around the world, Siegel claims. Tianjin, he says, has first-class restaurants, theaters, museums, large parks, and sports facilities. In the early decades of the 20th century, he notes, many foreigners lived in the city.

In the eyes of potential faculty recruits, the opportunity to work in a world-class school led by Siegel will carry more weight than whether the quality of life in Tianjin is on par with Shanghai, says Fraser Stoddart, a chemistry professor and the director of the Center for Chemistry of Integrated Systems at Northwestern University.

“Jay is a highly regarded and respected scientist, recognized in his research as a world authority on stereochemistry and physical organic chemistry with an enviable reputation as both a teacher and an administrator,” he says. “I don’t see him having the least difficulty in attracting top faculty to Tianjin University either as visiting faculty or as newly appointed assistant professors.”

Credit: Courtesy of Jay Siegel
A large reconstruction effort is under way at the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology of Tianjin University.
School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology at Tianjin University.
Credit: Courtesy of Jay Siegel
A large reconstruction effort is under way at the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology of Tianjin University.

Stoddart himself is discussing a collaboration with Tianjin, which may involve supervising students there. His students may also go to Tianjin. “There is no doubt that members of my present research group will jump at opportunities to go and spend some time in the new research laboratories that Jay is creating.” About a third of Stoddart’s group of 35 researchers are from China.

In line with the rising faculty headcount, the student population at Tianjin’s pharmacy school is set to increase. In coming years, the intake of Ph.D. students will grow from the current 30 or so to about 100, Siegel says. Master’s degree candidates will number 150 in a few years, up from about 50 now. And the school will accept 200 undergraduates annually, up from about 60 now, Siegel foresees.

That the language of instruction is English will not be a problem, expects Libing Yu, CEO of Alputon, a Shanghai-based contract research firm servicing the pharmaceutical industry. More and more students in China attend high schools that teach in both Chinese and English, he says. The school could play a useful role in raising China’s drug discovery and development capabilities, he further notes. “It will be a positive development to teach ethics and integrity as well as science and technology,” he says.

Major renovations of existing facilities such as this lab are underway at Tianjin University.
A refurbished lab in the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology at Tianjin University.
Major renovations of existing facilities such as this lab are underway at Tianjin University.

To accommodate a larger population, the school is expanding and upgrading its facilities. The renovation of 32,000 sq ft of lab space started last summer is scheduled for completion early next month. Once that is finished, Siegel says, a second phase of renovation will involve rebuilding an additional 130,000 sq ft of lab and office space. In addition, the planned construction of a new building will provide 85,000 sq ft of new space. “We’re looking at 2,000 sq ft of brand new lab space on average for each new faculty,” Siegel says.

Siegel’s appointment is making waves in China’s academic world. The director of the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, Kuiling Ding, says that he was extremely surprised when he heard the news. Scientists such as Siegel are people whom Chinese students seek for postdoc positions at labs abroad, not in China. To have Siegel leading a school in the country is remarkable, he says.

At the same time, Siegel is likely to face formidable challenges at Tianjin, Ding expects. “I suppose Tianjin has already considered this, but a foreigner administering a Chinese school will face language problems, cultural differences, and difficulties to communicate externally, with government officials for instance.”

Siegel says that he will be able to operate effectively because Tianjin University officials are letting him operate the school of pharmaceutical science as a “free zone” where experimentation in research, teaching, and administration will be fostered. More important, the president of Tianjin University, Jiajun Li, wholeheartedly champions the overhaul of the school.

“It’s rare that someone is given the freedom I have gained, this mandate to create a new institute,” Siegel says. “It’s an irresistible proposition.”


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