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Science & Technology

August 2, 2010
Volume 88, Number 31
pp. 46-47, 49

Chemistry At Peking University Turns 100

University's chemistry college, the oldest in China, has ambitious plans to promote innovative work, recruit top young talent

Amanda Yarnell

INCUBATOR Chemical biology technician Yujie Liang (left) and graduate student Maiyun Yang work in one of Peking University’s tissue-culture labs. Amanda Yarnell/C&EN
INCUBATOR Chemical biology technician Yujie Liang (left) and graduate student Maiyun Yang work in one of Peking University’s tissue-culture labs.
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Growing Impact
Quality Over Quantity
Quality Over Quantity The number of first-author papers from Peking University's College of Chemistry & Molecular Engineering has dropped over the past decade, even as the average impact factor of the journals in which they are published has increased from 1.6 to 3.6
SOURCE: Peking University College of Chemistry & Molecular Engineering

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At the ripe old age of 100, the chemistry college at Peking University, in Beijing, is the oldest of its kind in China. The college is not busy looking back, however, but is looking forward to becoming a global force in academic chemistry.

With that goal in mind, Peking University’s chemistry college is undergoing dramatic transformation: Researchers are raising standards, laboratories boast shiny new instruments, federal grant money is flowing, and the place has become the academic home of more and more ambitious young Chinese adults with top Western pedigrees.

Similar changes are afoot at chemical research institutions throughout China. But they are particularly influential at Peking University, says Jianhua Lin, an inorganic chemist and the university’s vice president and provost. That’s because the university—along with neighboring Tsinghua University—educates most of China’s top undergraduate students, he says. “Peking and Tsinghua are widely considered the Harvard and MIT of China,” adds Xi Zhang, chair of Tsinghua’s chemistry department.

That reputation attracts top students from across the country. Of the 28 students China sent to the International Chemistry Olympiad between 2002 and 2009, 24 chose to study chemistry at Peking University, according to Jian Pei, an organic chemist and the college’s vice dean for undergraduate teaching.

Qifan Yan, a Wuhan native who brought home gold from the 2003 olympiad, says he chose Peking University because its chemistry college “is the best in China.” His fellow gold medalists and teammates Benbo Ni and Yan Zhou did the same. All three finished their undergraduate degrees in 2007 and chose to continue their graduate studies in the college. “I thought it would make no difference whether I got my Ph.D. at Peking University or in the U.S.,” Zhou says. He now works in Pei’s group, Qifan Yan works for organic chemist Dahui Zhao, and Ni for polymer chemist Yuguo Ma.

“Students trained as undergraduates at Peking are as prepared—and maybe better prepared—as any trained in the West,” says X. Sunney Xie, a Harvard University chemistry professor who received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Peking University in 1984.

Chemistry at Peking University traces its roots back to 1910, the last year of imperial rule in China, when the Imperial University of Peking founded its chemistry division. Seven undergraduate students enrolled that year. Seven years later, the first graduate students joined the division.

In 1952, three years after the Communist Party of China established the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government reorganized the country’s universities. As a result, many chemists from Tsinghua and Yanjing Universities joined the Peking University chemistry division. In its century of existence, the division, which was renamed the College of Chemistry & Molecular Engineering in 1994, has educated more than 12,000 undergraduates and nearly 2,600 graduate students.

In recent years, the college has made a concerted effort to ensure that its undergraduates not only know their chemistry but also “have more opportunity to work in the lab” with faculty members, says Luhua Lai, a physical chemist who uses computational methods to correlate protein structure and function and to design new drug candidates. Indeed, “research is now an important part of undergraduate education,” Pei says.

A move to raise research standards is also under way. Between 2001 and 2005, Peking University chemists didn’t publish a single first-author paper in a journal with an impact factor greater than 10, according to Kai Wu, a physical chemist and the college’s vice dean for research and technology. In 2009 alone, he notes, they published 15 such papers.

The college’s publishing statistics reflect a realization “that we need to do more innovative work,” Lai says.

“More people are trying to do something new and original,” adds Zhenfeng Xi, an organometallic chemist who has been at Peking University since 1998. “In all of China, including Peking, original research is still too rare. But it is changing.” Driving that change, Xi notes, is a steady influx of young, ambitious faculty from the West.

Most profess to have been drawn to Peking University in large part by a desire to be closer to their families. But increasing scientific opportunity here and elsewhere in China is making it easier to look at coming back as a professional decision, rather than as a purely personal one.

Amanda Yarnell/C&EN
Gao's team uses its SQUID magnetometer, which is cooled with liquid helium-3, to characterize novel magnetic materials.

“When I first came back from Japan in 1993, lack of equipment limited our research,” says physical chemist Zhongfan Liu. “But no longer.” His lab, which aims to fashion nanodevices out of carbon nanotubes and graphene, is littered with scanning probe microscopes and chemical vapor deposition chambers. The chemical biologists work in gleaming new tissue-culture facilities. And in the building next door, a proud Song Gao shows off his rare SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) magnetometer, which is cooled with liquid helium-3 and used to characterize magnetic materials, even at low temperatures.

The change in research facilities at Peking University “has been astonishing, even though compared with other universities in China, it’s not unusual or even the most impressive,” says Ma, who returned to his undergraduate alma mater in 2005 after doing graduate and postdoctoral work in the U.S.

Meanwhile, starting packages for faculty at the college have increased dramatically, notes Gao, an inorganic chemist and the college’s chair. They now run around $150,000–300,000. Those dollar figures are lower than those paid by top universities in the U.S.—which can often top 
$1 million—but can go a long way in China, says Peng Chen, a chemical biologist who last year joined the faculty at Peking University, his undergraduate alma mater.

Plus, he says, faculty are benefiting as the Chinese government continues to pour lots of grant money into scientific research. China spent 1.5% of its gross domestic product on R&D in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s 2010 “Science & Engineering Indicators” report. That’s a smaller percentage than the U.S. and many European countries spent. But China is expanding its R&D spending rate at a blistering 19% annually, by far surpassing that of other nations.

Chen is one of a crop of young professors in the college who have been encouraged to forge their own, independent research groups—a rarity at Peking University and other schools in China, where junior faculty often join large, existing groups headed by senior faculty. “We are trying to give more faculty members the freedom to do their own research,” Gao says.

So Chen is applying know-how he picked up as a postdoc in Peter G. Schultz’s lab at Scripps Research Institute, in La Jolla, Calif., to use unnatural amino acids to label proteins with imaging or photo-cross-linking reagents. He’s already used such tools to probe how Shigella bacteria, which cause dysentery, promote their own virulence by injecting a toxic protein known as OspF into their human host.

Similarly, Xiaoyu Li, another Peking University-trained undergraduate, returned to the university earlier this year with an aim of using the high-throughput-screening expertise he acquired while working at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Broad Institute. Specifically, he hopes to screen chemical libraries built through the DNA-programmed chemistry he helped develop in David R. Liu’s lab at Harvard and nearby Ensemble Therapeutics.

Xing Chen, who trained with Carolyn R. Bertozzi at the University of California, Berkeley, before doing a postdoc in immunology at Harvard Medical School, is looking forward to joining the college’s faculty this fall. He hopes to design chemically customized sugars and nanomaterials to study the spatial and temporal regulation of cell signaling.

“Any of these young people could have landed good faculty jobs in the U.S.,” Gao notes. Still, challenges remain in recruiting top-flight talent. “We face stiff competition from other universities, both in China and abroad, as well as from the Chinese Academy of Sciences” institutes, Gao concedes. Faculty salaries also remain low in comparison with those in the West, and rapidly rising real estate prices in China generally, and in Beijing specifically, are making it challenging for young faculty to buy their own homes.

Those challenges aside, increasing scientific opportunity at Peking and indeed in all of China remains a draw. “It’s always been my plan to return to China,” says Yiqin Gao, a computational chemist who trained with Rudy A. Marcus of California Institute of Technology and Martin Karplus of Harvard and this summer left a faculty position at Texas A&M to join Peking University’s faculty. “Now the time is right.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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Peking University College of Chemistry & Molecular Engineering
Peking University College of Chemistry & Molecular Engineering

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In 1910, chemistry at Peking got its start.


In 1965, Peking University chemists teamed up with scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry and Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry to complete the chemical synthesis of bovine insulin. At the time, making even a small protein such as this one in the lab was a rare feat. But less than a year later, the Cultural Revolution isolated China from the rest of the world, and the achievement was not published until the country opened back up in the 1980s. (1)


In the 1970s, Peking University chemist Guangxian Xu developed novel acid-extraction techniques for separating the rare-earth elements. The method was quickly adopted by China's rare-earth industry, which today produces more than 90% of the world's supply of rare earths, an essential component of devices as diverse as iPods, hybrid cars, and missiles.


In the 1970s, Youchang Xie and coworkers at Peking University first showed that the lithium molecular sieve adsorbent PU-1 can be used to selectively remove N2 from air to yield high-purity O2 as well as to enrich CO from industrial effluent gas. Now produced commercially by Beijing Peking University Pioneer, PU-1 and related adsorbents are used in many chemical manufacturing processes, including the synthesis of glycol at Gem Chemical, in Tongliao, Inner Mongolia, which makes 200,000 tons of glycol each year using O2 and CO isolated in this way. (2)


Today, 30 battery-powered street-cleaning trucks roam the roads of Beijing. They rely on LiFePO4-olivine based cathode materials developed by Peking University chemists Henghui Zhou and Jitao Chen, working in collaboration with Beijing-based Pulead Technology Industry. During the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, two shuttle buses powered by the batteries carried sight-seeing tourists around Beijing. (3)

Chemical & Engineering News
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Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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