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Updated: 2018-01-26 08:43:20
( China Daily )

Xu Qi, researcher, Chinese Academy of Sciences.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Ten young female scientists are honored in China for their pursuit of academic excellence. Yang Yang reports.

In early January, 10 women from around China were honored with the 2017 China Young Women in Science Fellowships in a ceremony at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing.

The annual awards, organized by the China Association for Science and Technology, the Chinese National Commission for UNESCO and L'Oreal China, were set up 14 years ago to recognize the outstanding achievements of young female scholars in various fields of scientific research.

While the pursuit of academic excellence can often be hampered by the pressures of balancing family life with work commitments, the experience of top female scientists shows that with determination, a tolerant environment and a flexible approach, it is possible to realize their ambitions.

Zhang Yan, professor, College of Life Sciences at Peking University.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Zhang Yan, a 43-year-old professor from the College of Life Sciences at Peking University, is one of the winners this year.

As one of the world's leading scientists in her area of research, she has been investigating neurodegenerative diseases, and Alzheimer's disease in particular for over a decade, in an attempt to unravel their pathogenic mechanisms.

"Women in China inevitably have to contribute greatly to their families. So, this award is a form of encouragement for female scientists. And it also acts as an example to young female students that women can excel in scientific research like men, while also successfully raising a family," Zhang says.

Like many female Chinese scholars, she observes that while female students, whether they are undergraduates or graduates, are extremely exceptional, academic circles in China are still largely dominated by men.

Yang Li, professor, Peking University Hospital.[Photo provided to China Daily]

"Where have all the women gone? Why don't they continue with their studies?" Zhang asks.

After giving birth to her second child last year, Zhang says she seldom needs to work overtime.

"It's not as difficult as many young female students may imagine. I work quite efficiently during the day. In the morning, I concentrate on my work one hundred percent, with my phone in silence mode," she says.

"Actually within the space of just four hours, you can achieve a lot. In the afternoon, I deal with other work. My role as a mother and a wife is also very important, and I enjoy it quite a lot."

"It's a pity that a lot of female students just give up without trying," she says.
Waiting in the greenroom ahead of the ceremony, Zhang agrees with two of the other award winners, Xu Qi and Yang Li, that they never suffered gender discrimination during their education and in the field of scientific research-which is a world where academics prove their ability through the strength of their research papers.

Zhang Yan, Xu Qi and Yang Li are among the 10 Chinese women to be given the 2017 China Young Women in Science Fellowships for their outstanding performance in their fields of research.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Xu, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has been studying the pathogenesis of severe neuropathy, such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and depression.

Yang, a professor with the Peking University Hospital, is a top expert in the clinical prevention and treatment of acute kidney injury and its pathogenic mechanisms.

Both in their early 40s, Xu and Yang, were roommates when they studied at the Peking University Health Science Center two decades ago.

"I didn't feel gender discrimination as a student. When I started to run my own lab, I realized women actually have an advantage in the male-dominated world of science," Zhang says.

Yang agrees: "Yes, it's often easier for female teachers to communicate with students in the lab."

Xu's case is even more unique. She started studying at Peking University at the age of 14, where she was the youngest student in her class.

"Being female has always been an advantage for me since a young age. Many male colleagues joked that if they were a woman, they could have been as successful as me," she says. Xu adds: "I grew up in an environment which was very tolerant toward women."

Zhang Yan, Xu Qi and Yang Li are among the 10 Chinese women to be given the 2017 China Young Women in Science Fellowships for their outstanding performance in their fields of research.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Zhang agrees. A tolerant atmosphere of gender equality is beneficial for the growth of women in any field, she says.

However, being a woman still means they have to make more of a contribution to their families than most men, Yang says.

"If you want to be equally successful as men, you have to work harder."
Despite this, Yang admits that when she recruits doctors, even she prefers to hire men because "female doctors will take maternity leave once on average, sometimes twice, if they have a second child. This puts a lot of pressure on their colleagues, and presents a very practical problem for hospitals in China".

Although they may have to work harder than their male counterparts, female scientists remain passionate about their work, driven by the hope of becoming the first in their field to find solutions to problems that may have stumped scientists around the world for decades.

"It's funny that when I was younger, the first thing I would do when I woke up in the morning was to search the global database for new papers on my research topic published overnight," Xu says.

Xu worked for the international Human Genome Project for six months as a graduate student in the 1990s, and her eyes light up when she talks about that experience.

Zhang Yan, Xu Qi and Yang Li are among the 10 Chinese women to be given the 2017 China Young Women in Science Fellowships for their outstanding performance in their fields of research.[Photo provided to China Daily]

"It was just as an important project in the 20th century as the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb, or the Apollo moonlanding program. I am very honored for having been a part of it," she says. But Zhang says: "I seldom think about how great my work is, but it's such great fun to be the first to discover something previously unknown to the world. I have always enjoyed this aspect."

Yang says that she is an enthusiastic inquirer, which is a necessary characteristic of a researcher.

"First of all, you must have the desire to ask questions and find the answers to them, no matter how big, small, deep or shallow those questions are," she says.

Xu agrees, adding that holding onto the curiosity each person was born with is an important attribute. Besides undertaking research, she also supervises students.

"I'm confident that my students will hold on to their tenacity and curiosity about scientific research after they complete their five years of study. As a teacher, the most important thing is to safeguard every student's curiosity and confidence," Xu says.

"If I could start my life over, I would not choose clinical medicine as my major, but would directly go to the field of research I am working in now," she says.

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