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More than ever, China seeks foreign chemists

It’s no longer just pharma companies hiring, and knowledge of Chinese language is optional

by Jean-François Tremblay
March 7, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 10

Jay Siegel at a party at Tianjin University to celebrate the lunar new year. Siegel is either receiving or giving a red envelope to students.  Siegel and the students are laughing or smiling broadly.
Credit: Tianjin University
Siegel celebrates the Lunar New Year with students at Tianjin University.

Back in 2012, Simon Duttwyler was aiming to start his academic career in Europe. Despite his strong record of publications and a postdoc from Yale University, he was underwhelmed by his initial round of job offers. After widening his search, he spotted an opening at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, a leafy tourist destination located two hours by car south of Shanghai. Duttwyler made the jump in 2013 and is now a junior faculty member at Zhejiang.

“In Europe, I would have started with a small lab and very limited funding,” he says. The department of chemistry at Zhejiang is, by contrast, “very supportive of young members.” He expects that, in a few years, he will hold a tenured position at Zhejiang, making it difficult for him to abandon his lab there to return to either the U.S. or Europe. Which is fine with him, Duttwyler says.

U.S.-trained Ph.D. chemists have for years been securing challenging and attractive new careers in China. But those jobs were mostly in the pharmaceutical industry and often went to Chinese-born chemists returning to their home country.

Nowadays, talented foreign-trained chemists can find employment in China whether they are Chinese or not. As the country aims to become a world leader in basic research and innovation, career opportunities for chemists are multiplying. China’s pharmaceutical industry continues to recruit actively from outside of China, but the Chinese academic sector is also aiming to draw both up-and-coming and established scholars. Despite the potential barriers, cultural and otherwise, many chemists based in Western countries agree to relocate there.

Jay Siegel, dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Science & Technology at Tianjin University, says the ease with which he’s recruited foreign-trained chemists to Tianjin has surpassed his expectations. Having filled 35 positions in the past three years, he estimates that about two-thirds of the job offers he has made were accepted. Even academics who were tenured at prestigious U.S. universities have relocated to Tianjin.

Siegel has been restructuring Tianjin’s pharmacy school since taking its helm in 2013, aiming to turn it into a world-class drug research institute. Foreign scholars want to join, he believes, “because we can try new things. It’s not the same old, same old.” Non-Chinese scientists represent more than half of the scholars he has recruited since moving to Tianjin himself.

Statistics on how many U.S.-trained chemists have relocated to China don’t exist, but it’s likely substantial. A single company, the giant research contractor WuXi AppTec, claims to employ 600 staff who have both studied and gained drug industry experience in the U.S. And about 40 of the managers working at WuXi in China aren’t Chinese, a spokesman tells C&EN.

Duttwyler and eight students on the grounds of Zhejiang University.
Credit: Simon Duttwyler
Duttwyler with his research group at Zhejiang University.

The universities in Tianjin and Zhejiang are only two of several schools and research institutes in China that are recruiting chemists internationally. For example, two others—New York University’s new campus in Shanghai and Frontier Institute of Science & Technology in Xian—recently advertised in U.S. magazines for chemistry faculty openings. The positions don’t require Chinese language skills.

Many chemists are eager to come to China because the job market for chemists in the West has slowed, says Liming Shao, a professor at Fudan University’s School of Pharmacy in Shanghai and director of the Shanghai Center for Drug Discovery & Development. “Years ago, chemistry postdocs would get multiple job offers, but now getting one is a success,” he says. After completing a postdoc at Harvard University in 1996, Shao worked at pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. for about 15 years before moving to Shanghai in 2010.

Drug discovery in China is still in its infancy, Shao says, giving chemists from the West a greater opportunity to make an impact. At Fudan, he is helping China catch up with the West in drug discovery by raising the standards of research that Chinese drug discovery scientists use. “The Chinese government seeks global influence in research,” he says. He hopes to meet that challenge by leading his institute to discover a new drug, or at least a new target for one.

Nowadays, Shao says, it’s not a significant challenge for someone who doesn’t speak Mandarin to work in China. Within university campuses, many students and most science faculty are fluent in English, he says. And in the big cities, many signs are bilingual, and it’s easy to find food and products from other countries.

For a foreign scholar, a bigger challenge could be the evaluation system used inside Chinese universities. Surprised by it at first, Shao still finds it difficult to reconcile it with the country’s goal of conducting world-class research.

At Fudan, Shao guides his research group in high-risk but meaningful drug discovery projects that he hopes will advance China’s research capabilities while educating students. His students, however, cannot matriculate with a Ph.D. degree unless they publish research papers in international journals with high impact factors. As a consequence, he says, “some of the papers my students work on are meaningless in terms of the larger goal of drug discovery.” Chinese universities’ emphasis on high impact factors is an unnecessary distraction, he believes.

High impact factors can, however, work in favor of a foreign scholar interested in working in China. Zhejiang’s Duttwyler believes he was considered for the position because he had a solid publication record. “It’s their way to measure objectively, to justify if they should employ a particular candidate,” he says.

Employers in China, whether in academia or the private sector, are far from offering jobs to any chemist willing to relocate, especially if they have to pay a competitive salary or, as was the case for Duttwyler, fill a permanent position. When he came to Hangzhou for his interviews in December 2012, Duttwyler remembers, he was interviewed by different people “nonstop” for four days. “They wanted to see what I said when I would let my guard down,” he says. It’s not possible to act a part for four whole days, he says.

The Chinese government seeks global influence in research.

In the private sector, employers hiring scientists for China usually seek world-class talent, says Simon Lance, Shanghai-based director of the international recruitment firm Hays in China. Typically, he says, most employers would prefer someone who speaks Chinese, but it’s not always possible to find that person in certain scientific specialties, he says.

China’s overall economy may be slowing down, but Lance’s agency has seen hiring demand in the life sciences sector—pharmaceuticals, health care, and medical devices—hold steady. “Our clients used to be mostly multinational firms, but we’re seeing growth from local clients, especially the contract research firms,” he says. Business from local drug firms is also growing, he adds.

Demand from China for senior pharmaceutical researchers is greater than it was 10 years ago, but it has dropped from two years ago, says Daniel Gold, president of Fairway Consulting Group (FCG), a life sciences industry recruiting firm based in New York state. Most of FCG’s clients are multinational firms. The candidates that FCG identifies for its clients are usually eager to relocate to China for career reasons, but may also have relatives there. “They are very ambitious,” he says. “They want a bigger job.”

Still, there are trade-offs to living in China that give some candidates pause. In Tianjin, air pollution has been an issue for some candidates, Siegel acknowledges. Being located in the northern part of China, Tianjin suffers from smog on par with Los Angeles in the 1960s or Beijing, he says. “We would have an even higher rate of success in our recruitment if we didn’t have to deal with issues such as air pollution, Internet freedom, or product safety,” he says. Whereas in the West, product quality is taken for granted, it’s not uncommon in China for food to be tainted or unsafe products to be sold in stores, Siegel notes.

But for many candidates, quality-of-life issues aren’t a deterrent. “If you really want to grab a good career opportunity, or start a company, then the quality of life is not the main thing,” says Kevin Pan, owner of the virtual drug discovery company Asieris Pharmaceuticals, based in Taizhou, in Jiangsu Province. Pan has lived back and forth between China and the U.S. for several decades.

Born in Hangzhou, he obtained a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry at Rutgers University, in New Jersey, in 2000. He worked in research for several years at Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson in the U.S. before accepting a job in 2001 at the drug discovery firm Hutchison MediPharma in Shanghai. He moved to South Carolina in 2006 to work as a consultant but still rents an apartment in Taizhou because he travels frequently between the two countries. In 2010, he founded Asieris, which licenses molecules from the U.S. that it aims to develop in China mostly by relying on the country’s contract research firms.

Pan stopped living in China year-round because his wife and two children had remained in the U.S. Generally, such family stresses are the top concern stopping candidates from accepting jobs in China, says Haifeng Yin, vice president of chemistry at the Shanghai contract research firm PepTech. “Family is the number one issue for most overseas Chinese or foreigners thinking to live in Shanghai,” he says.

Often, the family is reluctant to move to China, he says. “Even if the parents are Chinese, it’s the American-born children who may have trouble adjusting to China,” he says. Although many scientists in China have left their family behind in the U.S., it may make more sense to wait for the children to enter college before making the move, he advises. Yin accepted a job at PepTech in 2006 after working as a researcher in the U.S. and Denmark for about 10 years.

PepTech currently employs 250 people, mostly chemists. James Ma, the company’s Boston-based president and founder, says that his company’s growth means that he’s constantly hiring foreign-trained chemists. He’s looking for candidates who offer top chemistry skills and can easily interact with customers in English. Many of the potential recruits live abroad, but some are already in China. For instance, he found his current director of medicinal chemistry one year ago in Shanghai. A French national, he had lived in China for five years prior to joining PepTech.

China may offer many opportunities for U.S.-trained scientists, but moving to the dynamic country does not always end well. “I advise people to go there with eyes wide open,” cautions David Wilson, an Arizona-based biologist who lived in China between 2010 and 2011 to manage the setup of a $100 million U.S. Food & Drug Administration-compliant biologics plant in Taizhou.

Wilson went to China on the recommendation of his Chinese-born business partner, who acted as the company’s chairman. During his stay, Wilson felt left out of many conversations because of his lack of Chinese fluency. And he was surprised to discover how difficult it was to get anything done, even obtaining financing for business trips within China. “The travel allowance was set at $30 per day, and I would stay in hotels that cost $45,” he recalls. Eventually, the joint venture that he worked for folded after its capital suddenly and inexplicably evaporated, Wilson says.

“I had never worked abroad, so it was a great experience,” Wilson says. But the company he worked for went out of business without warning. As a result, “if I were offered to go to China again, I would look at it very differently,” he says.

Yin, the head of chemistry at PepTech, has had a more positive experience and looks at China more optimistically. Chemists offered an attractive job in China should make the move, as long as family is not a concern, he says. And by all means, research the institution you’re thinking of working for, he recommends. After all, “it’s a big decision.”  


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