Collaborating with Chinese partners: scientific and personal chemistry

At the academic level, collaborating with partners in China – one of the world’s biggest and most influential countries – is highly interesting, but it does raise some questions. In this six-part interview series, we discover the precise nature of that collaboration and how it benefits partners in both Wageningen and China. Part 4: Han Zuilhof, Professor of Organic Chemistry, discusses a scientific and personal tie.

What does organic chemistry have to do with China?
“Ha! Well, organic chemistry is an important field of research in many countries. But strangely enough, the fact that my scientific tie with China is so strong has a Swiss origin. At the University of Zurich, I came into contact with Jay Siegel, originally an American professor and an authority in the field of organic chemistry. Since 2013, he had also been the dean of the School of Pharmaceutical Science and Technology (SPST) in Tianjin: a fully English-language part of the university focused on innovation in medicine and molecular research, areas in which organic chemistry plays an important role.”

How did Siegel get that appointment?
“The university of Tianjin – the oldest university in China, dating from 1895 – is actually very modern. As an important port city, Tianjin had long been internationally oriented.

Although being the oldest university in China, Tianjin is actually very modern

The university was founded by people from both the United States and China. So it wasn’t so strange that Siegel was appointed dean there. When I coincidentally met him in 2013, he soon suggested that I should also stop by there. Not much later I became a parttime visiting professor in the area of molecular science.”

Why are you so interesting for Chinese scientists?
“WUR has a good international name in my area of research. We develop methods to make high-quality surfaces whose molecular composition is so precise that they are very suitable for medical tests for example. As an important developer and manufacturer of tests, China is very interested in working together in this field.”

In the case of highly progressive disorders, you want tests to be able to detect the weak signal as quickly as possible

What can you do with those tests?
“Many familiar tests, such as COVID self-tests or pregnancy tests, quickly show whether or not a certain virus or hormone is in your nasal mucous or urine on the basis of molecules that are relatively easy to detect: we’ve known about them for a long time and they’re present in large numbers. So the signal is a strong one. But when you’re dealing with highly progressive disorders (for example, auto-immune diseases such as the Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which causes fast-spreading muscular weakness) or a disorder where the number of molecules to be detected is extremely small, you want the weak signal to be detected as fast and accurately as possible. This means you have to suppress the noise – the material that you’re not interested in (in difficult tests, more than 99.999 percent of the sample). Such noise suppression is also important for allergy tests, which still often show false positive results. We develop methods in which only the ‘allergy’ molecules adhere to the detection surface and the rest – matter causing the noise– swims further.”

Han Zuilhof with colleagues from the Supramolecular Chemistry unit in Tianjin. On the right,  Fraser Stoddart, who at that moment – 2016 – had won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Photo: Han Zuilhof
Han Zuilhof with colleagues from the Supramolecular Chemistry unit in Tianjin. On the right, Fraser Stoddart, who at that moment – 2016 – had won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Photo: Han Zuilhof

Why do you want to collaborate with Chinese partners?
“Chinese colleagues have an enormous drive, and that makes everyone very enthusiastic. Since their parents were unable to study, most students and PhD students are delighted that they now have the opportunity to do so. Research has undergone enormous developments in recent decades. And academics are convinced that science should serve to advance general knowledge and improve the world, and not just in their own country as some critics of China suggest.

The working language in Tianjin is English, which greatly helps in realising good cooperation

Collaboration with Tianjin is good because we aren’t competing with each other but are supplementing each other. For example, we’ve just discovered a new chemical reaction in Wageningen. Two PhD students from Tianjin are working further on this and a postdoc at WUR is going to do more research on one of those two studies. This is a very cool chemical reaction that will benefit science worldwide. The international focus at WUR was recently acknowledged by a Horizon 2021 Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry. The so-called Robert Robinson Award for Synthetic Organic Chemistry emphasises successful teamwork, something we emphatically do together with China.”

A lot of positive points. What are the reservations?
“The working language in Tianjin is English, which helps enormously in realising good collaboration; however, this isn’t yet the case at other Chinese universities. Because the working language is English, it’s easier for me to carry out my coaching role. Initially, most Chinese PhD students aren’t very self-confident and this is something that they have to learn. I supervise PhD students in this both there and here because we also have Chinese PhD candidates at WUR. It’s about helping them to think more critically, to determine why they’re doing their research the way they do themselves and not just because their supervisor has determined the direction. And sometimes their drive can really go too far; I have to convince my PhD students in Tianjin that you don’t have to work on Sunday.”

Han Zuilhof’s family traveling in Hunan, China. Photo: Han Zuilhof
Han Zuilhof’s family traveling in Hunan, China. Photo: Han Zuilhof

If you don’t like something in Tianjin, can you discuss it?

“Yes, definitely, because there’s a long-lasting bond of trust. But it’s not common there to just barge in and start complaining. If you want to discuss something, the best way to do that is informally during a meal. That wasn’t new to me because my personal tie with China reaches back to 2005.”

“In 2006 I adopted my youngest child in China. Prior to and after this we spent months in the country and I gradually learned more about their culture. I’m very impressed by the people. Their hearts are in the right place and they put the welfare of the collective above their own interests. I’ve come to know so many great Chinese people through the years, all with the same story. For example, I know a businessman who, after his retirement, decided to help children in orphanages find a home with foster families. He’s about 70 now and has helped more than a thousand children find a new home.”

There are also less attractive stories about China, like violations of human rights. Does that have an effect on you?
“Not in my scientific work, but as a person it does. I’m an active Christian and when I’m in China – prior to the pandemic that was about two months a year – I could only go to church if I showed my Dutch passport. However, I can talk openly about this with my colleagues there. We don’t always agree with one another, but we respect the other person’s point of view.”

In China I can only go to church if I show my Dutch passport

Does that raise doubts about your work in China?
“No, I consider those to be two separate things. I also work with the United States where new laws are going to disenfranchise millions of Black Americans. I don’t agree with that either, I have been a member of Amnesty International since I was 17, but I still want to collaborate at the academic level. You can enter into a dialogue only if you see each other, and I also do this on less easy topics with my Chinese colleagues; but I’m not there to judge others or to force them to adopt my point of view.”

What advice would you give your WUR colleagues who might be considering a parttime position?
“Make sure that your appointment matters. I was once a visiting professor at another Chinese university, but it became apparent that it was only for the show. Then you give two lectures in two years’ time and that’s it. But the tie with Tianjin is so strong that new opportunities are constantly arising. In research as well as in teaching: several WUR Master’s students were able to their internships there. How great is that? An internship in China! My secret? Be aware of cultural differences and sensitivities. In addition, learn from your mistakes, say sorry, and explain Wŏ shi Helan ren, wŏ pù shi Zhonguo ren: I’m Dutch, not Chinese. So if I do something wrong, let me know. My intentions are good.”