De­vel­op­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach to ground­break­ing sci­en­tific re­search

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHOU WENTING in Shang­hai zhouwent­ing@ chi­

Philipp Khaitovich, a Rus­sian sci­en­tist spe­cial­iz­ing in the study of the hu­man brain, has met Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping three times.

“It may sound like a cliche but I would say it’s un­doubt­edly the most im­pres­sive China-re­lated story for me,” said Khaitovich, di­rec­tor of the Max Planck So­ci­ety Part­ner In­sti­tute for Com­pu­ta­tional Bi­ol­ogy in Shang­hai.

The 43-year-old, who has pushed bound­aries to dis­cover why hu­mans are smarter than other species and how the ag­ing process hap­pens, at­tended meet­ings for for­eign ex­perts with Xi three times — first at the Great Hall of the Peo­ple in Bei­jing, then in Shang­hai, and fi­nally in Moscow.

The first meet­ing he at­tended was in 2013, and he said it was com­pletely un­ex­pected.

“There were 24 of us from dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries, and none of us ex­pected to meet Xi be­cause he had only just been elected as the top leader of the coun­try a few weeks be­fore. It was a com­plete sur­prise,” said Khaitovich, who has worked for the Shang­hai In­sti­tutes for Bi­o­log­i­cal Sciences, which in­cludes his in­sti­tute, since 2006.

He said his im­pres­sion of Xi is that he takes his time and makes an ef­fort to en­sure ex­pa­tri­ates work­ing in China see the coun­try as their sec­ond home­land.

“There are few ex­pats in China com­pared with the num­ber of cit­i­zens, and I don’t think we’re that im­por­tant for China. The coun­try can deal with prob­lems with­out for­eign­ers. But he re­ally made it a point,” Khaitovich said.

He has been awarded the Friend­ship Award, the na­tion’s high­est honor for for­eign­ers who make a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment. “Xi is a so­phis­ti­cated leader who re­ally looks far into the fu­ture,” he said.

Khaitovich, who re­ceived his doc­tor­ate in molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy from the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago, worked in the United States and Ger­many be­fore join­ing the in­sti­tute, part of the Chi­nese Academy of Sciences. The first time he vis­ited China was at the end of 2004 for the job in­ter­view.

Back then, he said, for­eign­ers did not know China that well and some were afraid of it. But as a sci­en­tist, he wanted first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence. “In science, some­thing that peo­ple be­lieve for cen­turies can turn out to be wrong.”

When he came to find out what China was ac­tu­ally like, he felt it was true that China is a truly dif­fer­ent coun­try. “China is spe­cial, and it’s not the same as Rus­sia, Europe or the US. But it’s good that coun­tries have their dif­fer­ences. I strongly be­lieve China needs to keep its unique iden­tity.”

He turned down job of­fers from first-class sci­en­tific re­search in­sti­tutes in Ger­many, Is­rael and Spain and in­stead chose China out of a de­sire to find out what a joint in­sti­tute be­tween CAS and Max Planck could be.

“The de­ci­sion was also mo­ti­vated by my be­lief that I can work with the most tal­ented and mo­ti­vated re­searchers here,” he said.

Af­ter all these years, he said, he feels his only real con­tri­bu­tion to the in­sti­tute is to train young sci­en­tists and see them de­velop and start in­de­pen­dent ca­reers.

How­ever, he is in­volved in valu­able re­search.

His team is work­ing on a new project to show the im­por­tance of feed­ing ba­bies breast milk rather than in­fant for­mula for early brain de­vel­op­ment be­cause the com­po­si­tion of fat, a ma­jor con­stituent in brains, is unique to hu­mans.

“It is widely be­lieved that fat in brains is prob­a­bly the same in all species. But that’s not true, as seen from our re­cent find­ings. For each species, it’s dif­fer­ent, and for hu­mans it’s par­tic­u­larly so,” Khaitovich said.

He said evo­lu­tion had re­sulted in cow’s milk be­ing op­ti­mized for calves’ brains and goat’s milk be­ing op­ti­mized for kids’ brains, but that their brains were com­posed of dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als.

“It’s like build­ing houses out of wood or stone. If you need to build a house out of wood but you have a lot of stones, it does not help you,” he said.

Khaitovich en­joys a mod­est life in Shang­hai where he lives with his wife, who is also a sci­en­tist, and two chil­dren.


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