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How does Westlake University attract top talent?


14, 2019

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On January 25, Jiemian.com released an in-depth report on how top talent enters Westlake University. It tells the story of Xiaobo Li, a PI (Principal Investigator) of School of Life Sciences, Zhang Yue, a PI of School of Engineering, Song Yaoxian, a doctoral student of 2017 and Zhou Fayang, a doctoral student of 2018. At the same time, Qiu Min, Chair Professor of Photonics and Vice President of Westlake University, introduced the criteria for recruiting talents, academic environment, etc.       

    

What brings them together at Westlake University? What is the experience of joining such a new research university? What makes them concentrate on scientific research day after day in the laboratory? What support does Westlake University offer?           


The full text is translated as follows.

source: Jiemian.com

Reporter: Liu Sunan.           

 

01 Interview            

In June 2017, in the Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University, Li Xiaobo received an email from the Department to postdoctoral students, forwarded by Shi Yigong. Shi Yigong wrote in that e-mail: "At Westlake University, sky is the limit."       


 This sentence touched Li Xiaobo. After 10 years of research in the United States, at the age of 32, he had just started looking for a job as a lecturer in American colleges and universities. This email inspired him and gave him an idea to go back to China for work. Subsequently, he sent his resume to Westlake University.


Almost at the same time, when Zhang Yue, an then-assistant professor at Singapore University of Technology and Design, wanted to return home, he saw the recruitment advertisement of Westlake University. "It's a relatively new way of running a university. It's managed by the Board of Trustees. The President governs the university and the professors governs the study and research. It feels like the system of Britain and Singapore. I was attracted by the philosophy of schooling."       


In 2015, seven individuals including Yigong Shi, Shiyi Chen, Jianwei Pan, Yi Rao, Yingyi Qian, Hui Zhang and Jian Wang submitted a Proposal for Piloting a New Private Research University to the central government and received endorsement. Shi Yigong, Founding President of Westlake University, once defined the vision of Westlake University: We envision that in five or ten years, Westlake University will host some of the most outstanding scientists in the world. They will be engaged in cutting-edge research, making the most fundamental discoveries and nurturing the best young talents. Through their wisdom and efforts, they will fully explore the frontiers of human knowledge, promote the development of mankind, and benefit the whole world.


By 2026, it is anticipated that the total number of full-time students at Westlake University will reach 5000, including 3000 graduate students and 2000 undergraduate students. It is also expected that by 2026, the number of Assistant, Associate, and Full Professors (including Chair Professor) will reach around 300; the number of research, teaching, technical support and administrative staff will be about 600; the number of postdoctoral fellows will be around 900.


(Caption: Zhang Yue, Principal Investigator, School of Engineering)


Zhang Yue participated in the interview on June 28 that year after sending his resume. At the end of the interview, Qiu Min, then-science and technology consultant of the Dean of Westlake Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS), talked to him about the developing plan of School of Engineering. "Feeling energetic." Without much consideration, he decided to join Westlake University.            


On November 17, 2017, Li Xiaobo flew directly to Shanghai from Newark Airport, New Jersey, USA. When he arrived at Pudong International Airport, he took a bus directly to the downtown area of Hangzhou.        

   

Yunqi Campus of Westlake University is located in the south of Westlake District, Hangzhou. Its original site belongs to a tool industry park. The transition from tool industry park to Westlake University is also the epitome of the transformation of this town and even the whole China in the past decades. Labor and resource-intensive economy has achieved rapid development in the past, but scientific research and innovation is the core driving force for the future of China's economy.          

 

That evening, Westlake University hosted a welcome dinner for academics who had travelled thousands of miles to Hangzhou for interviews. The next day, the interviews officially began.     

     

 Li Xiaobo has been engaged in botany and microbiology for a long time. He has been engaged in postdoctoral research at Stanford Carnegie Institute and Princeton University. He recieved the DeLill Nasser Award of the Genetics Society of American (2016), the Paul Stumpf Award of the International Forum on Plant Lipid Metabolism (2016), and the Robert Rabson Award of the American Society of Plant Biologists (2016).           


For the recruitment of Westlake University, schools, papers and honors are not the most convincing evidences. "The interview is to see if you can convince people that your research direction is cutting-edge and pioneering, and you have the ability to do it." Li Xiaobo said. To this end, he previewed several times in advance in the laboratory in the United States, soliciting advice from his mentor and colleagues. 

          

Shi Yigong once said that digital indicators are not meaningless but over-emphasizing them will lead us to a narrower path. Westlake University will build an academic evaluation system that encourages innovation. No matter the number and citation rate of academic papers or the influence factors of academic journals, it will not become the main indicator of academic evaluation of Westlake University. The academic evaluation of a scientist by Westlake University is mainly upon if its research is at the forefront of the relevant fields and substantial progress. "The humanistic care and academic atmosphere created by this evaluation mechanism will form part of the unique campus culture of Westlake University.


The formal interview is not only the evaluation of academic talents by Westlake University, but also the evaluation of Westlake University by the academic talents.     

      

There are 8 interviewers sitting in the conference room, including Shi Yigong, three PIs (Independent Laboratory Supervisor, Doctoral Tutor) and 4 off-campus experts. Each interviewee first talks about the PPT he has prepared, and then starts the Question & Answer Part.       

   

Human understanding of the molecular level of photosynthetic organisms has long been limited by research methods. Li Xiaobo proposed two research directions in the interview: introducing single-cell high-throughput means in botanical research to perform whole-genome screening of photosynthetic bioenergy metabolism; Molecular biology research on marine algae. The former's innovation in research technology will improve the efficiency of photosynthetic biological gene screening; the latter will break through the traditional field of botanical research, will expand human microscopic cognition of marine algae.   

       

 "What kind of support do you need?" An interviewer asked.        

  

 Li Xiaobo raised the issue of instrument purchase. Li Xiaobo explained that most laboratories use manual methods to select bacterial colonies and can only do experiments with thousands of bacterial colonies at most. However, his experimental project required 200,000 colonies. If he repeated it 200,000 times by hand, it would theoretically take 2-3 months to complete. If you use a colony-picking robot, it would take less than 20 days.           


"These two instruments are different from mass spectrometry and microscopy, and they are not the standard in biological laboratories. There are more than 100 colony-picking robots in the world. Many people do not know that this instrument can be used to improve the efficiency of laboratory work. He noted that the interviewers were not surprised by the purchase of the instrument.           


A few days later, he received an offer letter from Westlake University. Since then, he has received interviews with the University of California at Davis and North Carolina State University. He decided to join Westlake University.            


"The comprehensive conditions offered by Westlake University are better than those of most universities in the United States. If you get a good offer from a top university in the United States, the offer of Westlake University can even exceed them." Li Xiaobo said.           

 

02 Returning to China            


In December 2018, Qiu Min, Chair Professor of Photonics and Vice President of Westlake University, flew to five cities, Tokyo, Kyoto, Stockholm, Sweden, Copenhagen, Denmark, Berlin, Germany, within a month to recruit academic talents for Westlake University.


"I personally think that a first-class university is nothing more than first-class teachers, first-class students and first-class achievements." Qiu Min said. In the past few years, one of the most important jobs of Westlake University has been global recruitments, and the target group is very clear: first-class talents.


As early as April 2008, Shi Yigong and Rao Yi co-signed and published "On what to build a world-class university" in Guangming Daily. They believe that the fastest way to build a first-class university in China is to introduce outstanding talents from first-class universities abroad.


On April 16, 2018, the first Board of Trustees of Westlake University elected Shi Yigong as the founding president of Westlake University, and appointed Xu Tian and Qiu Min as vice presidents of Westlake University. Xu Tian and Qiu Min joined the Westlake University full time, creating shockwaves in the scientific community.


Xu Tian is one of the pioneers in the field of growth regulation. He has served as the Vice Chairman of the Department of Genetics at Yale University for 15 years and the Special Advisor to President of Yale University for 11 years.


Because of his research achievements nanofabrication technology, nanophotonics and green photonics, Qiu Min was elected as a Fellow of the American Optical Society and a Fellow of the International Society of Optical Engineering. At the end of 2015, he was elected as a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He was promoted to a full professor at the age of 34 and became the youngest full professor at the Royal Swedish Institute of Technology. In 2010, Qiu Min returned to teach.


Joining Westlake University is for dreams and aspirations. "All those who do scientific research would like to explore the unknown, fill up the blank, take on challenging projects. Participate in the founding of Westlake University is such a very exciting thing."


(Caption: Qiu Min, Chair Professor of Photonics and Vice President of Westlake University)


On December 10 of 2016, as the initial state of Westlake University, Westlake Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS) was founded in Hangzhou. Since 2016, Westlake University has conducted nine rounds of worldwide academic recruitments. From more than 8000 applications, 267 applicants were invited to interviews.


At the same time, Westlake University invited 161 experts from various disciplines, including more than a dozen Chinese and foreign academicians, to serve as external reviewers, and to evaluate candidates' academic background, academic achievements and developmental potential. Through rigorous screening, 109 people are expected to be employed. At present, 79 academic talents have officially signed contracts with Westlake University.


The academic environment that Westlake University wants to create is similar to the concept of “bag check”: after academic talents arrive at Westlake University, they can immediately continue their world's top scientific research.


In line with international practices, Westlake University implements a tenured/tenure-track appointment system for its Assistant Professors, Associate Professors, and Full Professors (including Chair Professors). Academic talents will be assistant professors after several years of doctoral education. The employment period is 5-6 years. After academic evaluation by peer experts, they will be transferred to long-term employment.


Qiu said: "Any academic talents, from any university, from any country, is welcomed to apply as long as they meet our conditions. At present, the overseas applications account for 95%."


On January 8, 2019, Westlake University issued its first global academic recruitment in the New Year, giving a glimpse of salaries and benefits. Westlake University would provide internationally competitive and reassuring academic salary and welfare benefits for the candidates in accordance with the specific conditions of the relevant positions of the world-class universities.


In terms of scientific research support, Westlake University will provide enough research start-up funds with reference to the corresponding positions of international first-class universities. At the same time, the University will give full support in laboratory space, team allocation and doctoral student enrolment vacancies, depending on the actual needs of scientific research work of introducing talents.


Westlake University will assist in solving housing problems or providing appropriate housing subsidies. At the same time, Westlake University will purchase high-end commercial medical insurance for the introduction of talents, their spouses and minor children, help solve the problem of children's enrolment in school, and solve the worries of introducing talents.


Qiu Min said, “In fact, there is no need to match up." We just use this way to express the attitude: academic talents can discuss with the university about any problem or idea they encounter. Within the scope of national laws, regulations and policies, and within the capabilities of university, we will strive to coordinate solutions and create a good working and living atmosphere for all”.

 

03 Independent Laboratory


"So far, the promise of Westlake University has been fulfilled, which is very important, some even better than the content of the contract." Li Xiaobo said. In December 2017, he signed a contract with Westlake University and took up his post on July 2, 2018.          


After signing the contract, Li Xiaobo has participated in school affairs as PI of Westlake University, although he has not yet entered the post. "Westlake University trusts those who sign the contract. As long as they have signed the contract, even if they haven't entered the post, they can start planning the laboratory and recruit 1-2 scientific research assistants and order the instruments first."        

   

Westlake University implements an independent laboratory (PI) system. Each PI plans its own laboratory, sets up a research team and decides the direction of scientific research. As early as his postdoctoral studies in the United States, Li Xiaobo began to plan his own laboratory. In January 2018, he advertised for researchers and research assistants. After the Spring Festival, he conducted interviews. In April, the first research assistant took office. By July, many core instruments of Li Xiaobo Laboratory had arrived, and the renovation of the office area was about to be completed.    


(Caption: Li Xiaobo, Pi, School of Life Sciences)


Before returning home, he had two main concerns: Is there a good research platform? Can we recruit high-quality students?           


The aforementioned colony picking robot and colony array replication robot belong to the public platform instrument, and PI jointly discusses and decides on the purchase of the public instrument. The research facilities and public instrument centre of Westlake University manage the sharing of large-scale instruments. The centre is building four first-level research platforms: new biomedical technology platform, laboratory animal centre, physical and chemical public experimental platform and advanced micro-nano processing and characterization platform.          


 "Westlake University builds the platform according to PI's research needs. If you need, you can also set up new research platforms, such as high-throughput biology platforms, which many universities do not have. If I had to do ocean research, I would have thought it would be a great challenge, but soon we would build the Abyss Technology Centre with Shanghai Ocean University”.         

  

On October 27, 2018, Westlake University and Shanghai Maritime University formally signed an agreement. The two sides jointly cooperated to develop exploratory and innovation applied basic research and key technology research for the strategic objectives and technological development trend of deep-sea science and technology, and jointly accelerated the construction speed of the "Rainbow Fish" 10,000-meter manned deep submersible and related abyss science and technology mobile laboratory project.           


Li Xiaobo intends to take an abyss examination in the future and collect some abyss samples.        

 

Independent laboratories mean freedom of cooperation. Qiu Min pointed out that each laboratory is an independent research group, which can be docked with any individual or institution, cooperation does not require the approval of department directors, deans and presidents at all levels. PI can freely decide whether to cooperate or not, what form of cooperation to take, and even decide whether to recruit students to be trained by two laboratories, or to apply for doctoral quota and scientific research projects separately from the school's Office of research and external collaboration.


"The scientific research guarantees provided by Westlake University not only refer to the guarantee of funds, but also include breaking disciplinary boundaries and administrative barriers through a series of institutional mechanisms to ensure that there are no barriers when people want to cooperate and cross borders." Qiu Min said. "There is no subordinate relationship between professors in Westlake University. Every teacher has the same academic rights within the university."

 

04 Student Recruitment


In September 2016, Song Yaoxian first completed his academic visit to the Network Systems Research Group of Australian National University. He had four plans: job hunting, doctoral application for Australian universities, Zhejiang University and Westlake University.           


Westlake University has broken the path of low starting point for private colleges and universities in China.


President Shi Yilong made it clear that the fundamental mission of Westlake University is to cultivate top innovative talents with a sense of social responsibility. Westlake University would take the first 6 years devoting to foster doctoral students only, before starting small-scale undergraduate programs in 2023. 


Westlake University has implemented interdisciplinary joint doctoral programs with both Fudan University and Zhejiang University, and employed the “application-assessment” admission process. regardless of your current degree, year of graduation, age and so on.


On March 21, 2017, on the third day of the opening of WIAS in Zhejiang Province, Song Yaoxian got the first sight of Westlake University. "There's a bit of waste." He said. At that time, the new gate had not yet been established, and the gate of the original tool industry park was still in use. Apart from the normal operation of the administrative building, several other industrial buildings are being covered by a huge safety net.        

  

In the spring of the same year, Song Yaoxian first participated in the interview of Class of 2017. His advantages are obvious compared with the students of the same period: during his master's degree, he won the national discipline competition award, made independent academic visits in Australia, published several good papers, ranked fourth in the Academy, and won the national scholarship. However, he believes that he has obvious disadvantages: universities from where he got undergraduate and master's degrees were not well-known.           


Finally, he passed the interview at Westlake University. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in computer science and technology at Westlake University. He is mainly engaged in the research of robot grasping and multi-robot cooperative control in unstructured environment with his tutor.         

  

On September 2, 2017, 19 PhD students from Class of 2017 were formally enrolled. Since then, besides completing the required courses and personal research topics, Song Yaoxian has participated in the construction of the tutor's laboratory in the whole process. Starting from the "blank room" without furniture, Song Yaoxian has divided the functional areas of the laboratory with drawings, purchased laboratory furniture and personal experimental equipment, wiring and communication of the power grid, and established the daily management system of the laboratory. Now, Westlake University is taking shape. The Class of 2017 witnessed the growth of Westlake University from 0 to 1.  


On August 26, 2018, Westlake University welcomed 120 Ph.D. postgraduates from Class of 2018, such as Zhou Fayang. Li Xiaobo participated in two Ph.D. candidates’ recruitment interviews, and he no longer worried about the quality of the students: "Now the students are knowledgeable, and they know how to choose. In the past, students’ choices of universities may mainly depend on the history and reputation of secondary schools, but now students go online to inquire about the quality of their erudition.”         

  

Zhang Yue enrolled a liberal arts student with excellent math performance and English reading ability in his text intelligence laboratory. A sentence he said in the interview made Zhang Yue remember vividly: "My life can't go on like this. Wealth is not so important to me. I want to do something I want to pursue."  

         

Zhang Yue repeatedly asked him if he could pass the mathematics course in the Department of Computer Science of Zhejiang University. He said that he had no problem. "He's a mature man who manages himself well. I want him to bring different ideas to the lab. In Cambridge and Oxford, there are also many liberal arts students doing natural language processing research. I would like to try this, and he may become a very good artificial intelligence researcher”.

 

05 Roatation


Before entering the School of Life Sciences of Westlake University, doctoral students will rotate 2-3 rounds among different laboratories. After the rotation is over, there is a two-way choice between teachers and students. Zhou Fayang chose Shi Yigong's structural biology laboratory in the first round.           


In 2008, Shi Yigong quit his tenure as a professor at Princeton University and returned home full-time. During his seven years as Dean of the College of Life Sciences at Tsinghua University, he led Tsinghua Biology to make great progress, making it a world leader in the field of structural biology.          


After the first round of rotation, Zhou Fayang found that structural biology was different from his previous pharmacology. "Everything can be explained by structure." He chose to continue the second round of rotation in the structural biology laboratory. Finally, Shi Yigong selected four doctoral students from eight students, including two from the undergraduates and two from the masters.           


On January 2019, Zhou Fayang completed the credits and can devote himself to the laboratory work. He is following his predecessors to study the key protein structure of polycystic kidney disease. Polycystic kidney disease (PCN) is a hereditary kidney disease. Patients will go through the stages of occurrence, growth, swelling, ulceration and uremia. There is no way to prevent the development of the disease.        

   

"Polycystic kidney disease is a single genetic disease, that is to say, the number of genes affecting the disease is limited, and the proteins involved are limited." Zhou Fayang said he hoped to find the cause of the disease by analyzing the structure of these key proteins, and then design some drugs.          


In the School of Life Sciences of Westlake University, besides a major tutor, doctoral students can choose several other teachers to form a steering committee or a tutorial group after entering the second year.   

       

Zhou Fayang considered choosing a tutor in the field of computer simulation or cell biology and molecular biology. "In Westlake University, as long as you want to learn, you can try in any direction. There are vacant jobs in the laboratories of technical colleges and science colleges, and students from other colleges can study.       


(Caption: Zhou Fayang, Ph.D. Student, Class of 2018)    


Some studies have pointed out that the age structure of Chinese students abroad is undergoing rapid changes. "There are many students going abroad during high school. No matter what kind of enrolment method is used in the future, if Westlake University can attract a part of these people to stay domestic, it must be a beneficial thing for the country and the people." Qiu Min thought.          


Qiu Min also said that diversification is an inevitable trend in any country or field. "Westlake University is a new research university. If we succeed, there will probably be more universities like ours."          


He pointed out that public universities in China have been well established and have a high reputation both at home and abroad. Westlake University hopes to establish its own characteristics and become an integral part of China's higher education. "It is impossible for Westlake University to replace or subvert other universities. Instead, it hopes to upgrade the whole Chinese higher education to a world class level through diversified ways of running universities."