Structural Biologist Nieng Yan Comments on Return to China From US
Nieng Yan, a well-known Chinese structural biologist, announced on November 1 that she would resign as a tenured faculty member at Princeton University and return to China as the founding dean of the Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research and Translation (SMART). She was previously the youngest doctoral supervisor at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, and once triggered widespread discussion around her decision to leave China for the US. On November 2, Yan responded to the matter on a Chinese social media platform, explaining her reasons for returning home.
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Yan wrote, “Shenzhen Medical Academy of Research & Translation (SMART) – all kinds of things about this institution will be presented to the public soon. Everything is difficult at the beginning, and now we are in the busiest time. We Tsinghua fellows always believe ‘doing is better than saying.’ Please give us some more time.”
Yan continued, “As for the initial intention of accepting Shenzhen’s invitation and establishing the SMART, in fact, I already said at the beginning of my ten-minute speech yesterday, but it seems that only the last-minute clip is circulating on the Internet. I know deeply that I have made some achievements today, not necessarily because I’m smarter and more diligent. To a large extent, it is because I have been lucky in the past two decades: I have been lucky to always be in the most suitable environment for scientific research, to attract a large number of intelligent and talented doctoral students and postdocs, and to have obtained ‘people-oriented’ financial support. All this allows me to explore freely the scientific world that I am most interested in.”
“In return, I very much hope to extend this luck, so that more young people can enjoy the same luck continuously, rely on their ‘internal driving force’ instead of various temptations from the outside world, and explore and display their potential without worries, so as to make more truly original discoveries.”
Aged 45, Nieng Yan was born in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province in November 1977. She graduated from the Department of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology of Tsinghua University in 2000, She then pursued her PhD in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University under the supervision of Professor Yigong Shi between 2000 and 2004. She continued her postdoctoral training at Princeton University, focusing on the structural characterization of intramembrane proteases. In 2007, Yan, who was only 30 years old, was appointed Professor and Doctoral Supervisor of Tsinghua University.
In May 2017, Nieng Yan accepted the invitation of Princeton University and was assigned as the Shirley M. Tilghman Professor of Molecular Biology at the university. In 2019, Yan was elected to the United States’ National Academy of Sciences as an International. In 2021, she was elected as a foreign academician of American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Her lab has been mainly focusing on the structural and functional study of membrane transport proteins exemplified by the glucose transporters and Na+/Ca2+ channels. The atomic resolution structures of a series of transmembrane proteins with important physiological and pathological significance, such as human glucose transporter, eukaryotic voltage-gated sodium channel and calcium channel, were revealed for the first time in the world, which provided a molecular basis for understanding the pathogenesis of related diseases and drug development.
Since 2009, as a correspondent author, she has published 19 papers in Nature, Science and Cell, some of the most influential academic journals in the world. Her research was cited in runners-up to “Breakthrough of the Year” by Science in 2009 and 2012.
Regarding the establishment of a medical institution in Shenzhen, Yan said that cooperation hit it off easily. “My dream is that after the joint efforts of our generation and generations, after ten or twenty years, Shenzhen will occupy an important place in the world biomedical map; When everyone talks about the Greater Bay Area of biomedicine, the first thing that will come to mind is here in the Eastern Hemisphere!”
According to official documents, SMART was established by the municipal government and implements a socialized employment system. The dean, who will also be the legal representative of the institute, will be recruited globally. The institution is located in Pingshan District, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, benchmarking the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and is planned to be completed in 2025. Shenzhen Municipal Government will also set up special funds for medical research and entrust SMART to carry out professional management.