|FOCUSED STUDY: Chen Zhangliang performs an experiment in 1995 (WU ZHIYI)
Chen Zhangliang has become well-known throughout China as the country's youngest professor, Vice President of the prestigious Peking University, President of China Agricultural University and Vice Chairman of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. He won the Javed Husain Prize for Young Scientists, which is called the Nobel Prize for researchers under the age of 35, in 1991 at the age of 30.
Chen was born in February 1961 in a fishing village in southeast China's Fujian Province. China at that moment was suffering from famine due to years of draught, so his father named him liang—which means grain—in hopes that his son could get enough food throughout his life and never again suffer from famine.
His parents never attended school and could not read. Chen made his mark early, however, as a very clever student, so his teacher changed the word liang to another character with the same pronunciation, which means "good."
In his first year of high school in 1977, Chen was informed that the college entrance exam had been restarted after its suspension during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). He took the exam in 1978.
"It was quite big news, although I had no idea how it would change my fate," he said. "More than 100 students from the school took the exam. We had to take a truck for four hours the day before to a bigger town to sit for it. At night, we slept in the classroom by moving desks together to make room."
Chen was the only student in his school who was accepted into college that year. His father was upset by his success because it meant Chen would no longer be around to help on the farm. He attended the South China College of Tropical Crops in Hainan Province.
"My income at that time mainly came from a college grant, which amounted to 19 yuan ($2.8) per month, and the part-time jobs I worked on vacations," he said.
Just before graduating, the country selected a group of students to go abroad for further study. Chen was one of the chosen few, attending the University of Washington in the United States. While there, he worked in the lab for more than 12 hours a day.
"I had never thought that I would go abroad," he said. "I really appreciated this precious chance the country offered."
In 1985, he published his first paper in an academic journal. His research aroused the attention of other scholars in his field around the world. A year later, China launched its national plan for hi-tech development. Seven subjects including biology and space and information sciences were included in the plan. At the invitation to be part of the plan, Chen returned to China and chose to work at Peking University. He became an associate professor soon after he arrived in 1987 at the age of 26. Two years later, he became China's youngest full professor. He took leads on many research projects. At 31, he became the director of Peking University's Biology Department, and at 35, he was named Vice President of Peking University.
Boss and brother Liang
Students and colleagues in Chen's lab call him the boss because of his unconventional management method and his stark contrast to the typical image of the university professor. Professors are usually thought of as sitting behind their desks and constantly studying while Chen is known to be very humorous, likes laughing and is a fan of volleyball.
Part of the difference might come from his work as a real boss. In 1992, he established China's largest medical biotech company, PKU Weiming Biotech Group Co. Ltd., which has developed into a group containing many branches.
After becoming President of China Agricultural University in 2002, he changed the evaluation standards for teachers from being based on the academic papers they published to the number of new agricultural techniques they study and spread to rural areas to help farmers get more money.
"If the technology stays locked in the labs, it is useless," said Chen.
About 30 percent of the students at the agricultural university come from poor families. Chen gave his business card to all of the students and asked them to turn to him for help any time. Almost all E-mails receive a reply, earning him the honorific title of "Brother Liang."
On December 28, 2007, Chen was appointed Vice Chairman of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Chen's duties put him in charge of agriculture, civil affairs and poverty relief. He said he hopes to explore the best and most suitable path to developing the region.
"The country can't achieve overall prosperity without the prosperity of the farmers," he said.