Subscribe to free Email Newsletter

  Chinese Way>Life
Biology a Model in Scholar's Life


British researcher David Waxman talks to some students at Fudan University in Shanghai. Cao Zichen / For China Daily

Harry Potter may use a wand to cast magic spells, but David Waxman considers his microscope his special weapon.

He received the gadget on his seventh birthday and since then, he has had many magical moments with it.

"I often dragged my father to the pond near our house. Even in the winter, I would go into the water and catch the creatures using a net and a jar," the 54-year-old Englishman recalls.

"That's how I developed my interest in biology," Waxman says at his cozy office inside the 30-floor Guanghua Tower, a landmark building on the prestigious Fudan University campus in Shanghai.

Waxman and his wife, Marie Harder, a sustainable development expert from England, arrived in Fudan in 2011. They were both enrolled in the Recruitment Program of Global Experts, which is also called the Thousand Talents Program, an initiative aiming to attract world-class researchers in various academic fields to China.

Waxman's research area is known as theoretical biology, or mathematical biology, in which he develops and analyzes mathematical models to answer questions on evolution, population genetics and related subjects.

Abstract as it sounds, Waxman believes that science produces important results by chance. He once found someone who embarked on bone-growth research citing a paper he had published on genetics.

"So, a good discovery in one subject could be useful to other fields," he notes, attributing the reason and the result of his success to a firm belief in cross-disciplinary education.

Holding a doctorate degree in theoretical physics, Waxman turned to biological studies at the age of 40, and thinks that it's never too old to learn.

The shift was sparked by a TV documentary series in Britain, which followed the lives of 14 people since they were 7. Every seven years, the TV producers would film a new episode tracking their development.

The documentary discovered an interesting phenomenon - people change their childhood ideals and become very serious in their chosen career. But as they approach their 40s, they often turn back to what they aspired for as a child.

Drawing from the story, Harder believes that children sometimes know what is most important to them, but schools can divert their ideals because of their very rigid path. Children will follow the school's path and forget their initial dream.

"So I asked David, 'What were you doing when you were 7?', and he said he was catching fish in the river. Then I suggested he walk into the biology building and take a few courses there. Six months later, he changed to biology," Harder says.

A major transformation? The answer is yes and no, according to Waxman.

"From my point of view, I am a theoretician. For theoretical physics, you do calculations, you do sums. Now I am a theoretician in biology, I do calculations and I do sums," he says.

His work represents a bold interdisciplinary subject, only in its infancy in China.

During a recent meeting between China's top political leader Xi Jinping and foreign experts, he handed in two proposals.

One is regarding the names of researchers on a scientific paper. Waxman found it problematic that in China, only the first and the last author who appear on a research dissertation count. The mechanism will deter teamwork as people will be worried that if their names are somewhere in the middle, their effort will not be recognized.

Waxman says changing the system will increase the probability that senior professors across different disciplines will collaborate with each other.

The other concern he has is Chinese students staying up late into the night. He suggests that, at least for some courses, the focus should shift from facts to basic principles and application of the principles.

"Here, people work fairly rigidly between certain subject boundaries," he says. "I'd like to see more courses that are interdisciplinary, giving students a bit of whatever that is needed to make progress."

Waxman has been an early advocate of cross-subject education. During biology courses, he explicitly includes some mathematical models so students realize their usefulness and importance. When he talks to mathematics majors, he emphasizes the different implications from physics, biology and environmental studies.

But above all, he wants to influence young students by training them in a different way.

He recently leveraged on his resources abroad to organize an international symposium on mathematical biology at Fudan. He is looking forward to holding more such events next year to form a bridge between Chinese and foreign scientists.

Upon getting the chance to work in China, he was thrilled to collaborate with people from a whole different culture, to teach and learn from them.

In his view, China presents this huge opportunity to feel free to think big, to experiment with cutting-edge ideas, and to introduce advanced technologies.

At the foreign experts' meeting, he was astonished that Xi Jinping knew his name, his school and asked about his job.

"It was definitely a remarkable moment of my life. He (Xi) behaved with great confidence, but also modestly. He listened, he commented on what people said and took notes," Waxman says.

To his Chinese colleagues, Waxman is a traditional English gentleman, who is nice and helpful to all around him, says Luo Zewei, a biology professor at Fudan and whose office is next to Waxman's.

"He is highly dedicated in his work. He makes a computer simulation each time he explains a theory, even if it's just a trivial one. Chinese researchers should learn from his spirit of dedication," Luo adds.

Waxman and his wife love living in Shanghai and for now, cannot imagine themselves in another city. For Harder, it is the safety of walking alone even at 11 pm, and the unique experience from the tiny lanes to the glossy shops.

Waxman says he loves the food and the weather.

The couple usually walk home together and on the way, they brainstorm new ideas and discuss issues using different approaches. But at times, they stay up late and spent the night in their respective offices.

"What's spare time? Never heard of that!" Waxman jokes, when asked if he had hobbies. "The harder I work, the luckier I will be. This is my philosophy."

By He Wei (China Daily)