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Big data to make innovation for health science in China

Updated: Sep 30, 2015 Print


Jay Siegel instructs his student at Tianjin University. He says he aims to help the students find a balance between developing skills and creative thinking. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Molecular biologist Jay Siegel is keen on enabling a big data platform for health science in China. Liu Xiangrui reports.

Jay Siegel's daily tasks are manifold-from the smallest details to the grandest projects. The scientist from the United States has worked on molecular design, chemical synthesis and structural analysis, the three main components of modern stereochemistry.

His research combines synthetic and physical organic chemistry with an eye on pharmaceutical, material and life sciences.

Earlier, Siegel, 58, was with the University of Zurich.

In 2013, he became the dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology at Tianjin University in North China. He is among the few foreign heads of university departments in the country.

Now, he is also the dean of the School of Life Science in the same university.

Siegel recalls how unlikely it seemed at first for him to come to work in Tianjin. He couldn't speak Chinese and hadn't taught students from the Chinese mainland either.

But in 2010, a Sino-Swiss exchange program brought him to China for the first time, when he gave a series of lectures at universities in Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin.

The next year, he became a member of the Thousand Talents program, initiated by the Chinese government to attract high-level foreign experts to work in China.

Eventually, he joined Tianjin University.

The decision was taken by him together with his wife, Kim Baldridge, a scholar of the Thousand Talents program who also works in Tianjin.

"It came down to what we really wanted to do," Siegel says of his career move.

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Jay Siegel instructs his students at Tianjin University. He says he aims to help the students find a balance between developing skills and creative thinking. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Li Jiajun, then-president of Tianjin University, told him that he could create his own administrative structure for the School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology, as well as make changes to the curriculum, Siegel says.

"What I was trying to do was something essentially alien to Chinese universities at the time," he says, adding that the university allowed him, a foreigner, to make decisions.

Li, now Party secretary of the university, says: "We wanted him to work for our university not only because we value him as a scientist but also because of his rich experience in teaching and educational reform, and his ambition to build a world-class department here."

The School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology at Tianjin University is a big step toward internationalization of universities in China, Li says.

Siegel has spent a lot of time setting up a new administrative structure so that the ideas he wants to put forward get translated into action.

He has created a new curriculum, which is in English, to give his students an international environment.

He also upgraded the infrastructure of this school and that of the life sciences department with new equipment, including a molecular design laboratory.

Understanding how molecules recognize one another and how receptors catalyze reactions improves our ability to optimize drug leads and move target molecules faster toward clinical trials, he explains about a part of their work at the university.

"What it looked like five years ago and what it looks like now are just unrecognizable."

Siegel aims to help the students find a balance between developing skills and critical as well as creative thinking, which he believes is crucial for China's journey from a manufacturing-based economy to one of innovation.

He says he wants to build a big data platform for health science, which will focus on strategic areas such as molecular medicine, life sciences, computational biology, bioengineering and public policy, using the resources of the two schools at Tianjin University.

"Most of my days are spent coordinating how that happens," says Siegel.

His work is both academic and administrative. But the job is exciting and he never gets bored.

In the past years, Siegel has made use of his connections to help the School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology set up international collaboration platforms. It has signed agreements with several institutions around the world, as well as garnering praise from the American Chemical Society through receiving its Chemistry Luminary Award Program.

The School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology has also made efforts to bring in foreign talent into the university.

For example, it introduced Fraser Stoddart, a Scottish scientist who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Bernard Feringa of the Netherlands in 2016, to Tianjin University in 2013. Stoddart not only became a visiting professor at the school but has also brought over members of his research team and established a laboratory at the university.

Currently, more than 40 high-level international experts and young scholars have become faculty members or researchers at the department, which has become a demonstration institution of internationalization recognized by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs and the Ministry of Education.

During the past five years, Siegel together with Baldridge and Stoddart, published a high-profile paper in Nature Chemistry on the origins of shape selection in bio-catalysis.

In 2015, Siegel received the Friendship Award, which is the highest honor given to foreigners by the Chinese government for their contribution to the country's economic and social development.

Despite his busy schedule, Siegel has been learning Chinese. He usually drinks coffee while learning the language on his computer during breaks at work. He is proud to have passed the HSK-4 exam, a test for Chinese proficiency, and looks forward to reaching a proficiency so he will be able to appreciate Chinese literature and movies.

Siegel enjoys the local life in Tianjin, he says.

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