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UPDATED: March 14, 2010 NO. 11 MARCH 18, 2010
Enlivening Science
Female scientists have become more prevalent and are making the field more interesting


FRONTIER CAREER: Hong Yanji, a professor with the Academy of Equipment Command and Technology of the People's Liberation Army, concentrates on an experiment in her laboratory (QIN XIAN'AN) 

Five outstanding young female scientists from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Jilin were honored at the Sixth China Young Female Scientists Awards in Beijing on January 26.

The five winners were Jiang Chengyu from Peking Union Medical College, Zeng Fanyi from Shanghai Jiaotong University, Li Xiaoying from Tianjin University, Li Baohui from Nankai University and Ji Hong from Jilin University.

All of them are carrying out research into basic and life sciences and all have achieved important breakthroughs.

The influential awards were jointly set up by the All-China Women's Federation, the China Association for Science and Technology, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and L'Oreal China in 2004. Up to now, 49 young female scientists in China have received awards.

Soldier and scientist

Hong Yanji holds the titles of both "soldier" and "scientist." She dreamed of being one of these when she was a child.

In 1991, she had the chance to realize her dream in that year, the National University of Defense Technology began recruiting candidates for master's degree. Although she was then 28 years old with a son and had worked in a college for seven years, Hong decided to pursue her dream. Today, she is a professor and doctoral supervisor at the Academy of Equipment Command and Technology of the People's Liberation Army.

In today's China, the number of female professors is continually growing. A research done by the Institute of Policy and Management and the Center for Strategic Studies of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2007 shows the proportion of female professors, associate professors and lecturers has leapt forward since 1991. At present, China has more than 9 million female employees in the science and technology field, accounting for one third of the total.

Soon after starting work with the Academy of Equipment Command and Technology, Hong began to teach physics to freshmen. She was also in charge of the development of the college physics network teaching system. This was China's first college physics and software system network course, and was honored with the first prize in a national network courses and multimedia lessons competition in August 2000. It has since been adopted by many colleges and universities.

Hong has always been at the cutting edge of scientific research. She has been working on the advanced propulsion technology since 2001. The research into this technology is a worldwide puzzle which only a few countries are doing.

"The research may need 10 to 20 years and maybe I will not see the final result, but it is important to the development of space technology," Hong said. Even if she does not reach the peak, she will still allow her successors to step on her shoulders and keep climbing to it. If she takes detours, she can still provide reference points for her successors.

The research led by Hong was approved to be a state-level project and she became the leader of the research group, showing the way in setting up the first national research laboratory in the field.

"Today, our research into the mechanism has reached the same level as those of developed countries," she said.

The average age of the members of the researchers led by Hong is less than 30, and most have master's and doctorate degrees. "Advanced propulsion technology belongs to basic applied research, which involves many academic questions, such as some new theories and research methods, so it is very suitable for teaching," Hong said.

Standing on a mountain

Zeng Fanyi is deputy director of the Institute of Medical Genetics with the School of Medicine of Shanghai Jiaotong University.

She started playing the piano when she was four years old and has performed on stage since the age of five. After she entered the university, she majored in biology and also studied music.

"I am fascinated by the harmony of science and art. Art gives science wings of imagination and science turns art into reality from dreams," Zeng said.

Zeng's research centers on a little mammal called Tiny. Cooperating with Zhou Qi at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Zeng's team created a fertile living mouse, Tiny, for the first time by injecting induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into tetraploid blastocysts, which proved iPS cells, similar to embryonic stem cells, are truly pluripotent.

The results of the research were published online by Nature magazine on July 23, 2009 and received high praise in the field. It was regarded as "finding a brandnew way to clone adult mammals." Time magazine lauded the research as one of "the Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs around the World."

Using cloning and embryonic stem cell technology in regeneration medicine is regarded as the most valuable application of future cloning technology. But traditional ethics problems make the future of this research uncertain.

In November 2007, Japanese and U.S. scientists said, at the same time, they had successfully transformed human skin cells into iPS cells. It implicates an adult cell could be reprogrammed to "embryonic status" and then develop into a fully functional organism, which successfully bypassed controversial embryonic stem cell and ethical questions.

Zeng and Zhou's teams went deeper into the research. The researchers used viral vectors to introduce four genes into mouse fibroblast cells to reprogram these somatic cells into pluripotent cells in order to create iPS cells. After carrying out a standard set of tests to check whether the reprogramming had worked, the research group confirmed that they had generated 37 iPS cell lines. They then tested the pluripotency of these iPS cell lines by tetraploid complementation and created more than 1,500 tetraploid embryos, using six iPS cell lines selected from 37 iPS cell lines, and finally generated 27 live mice. Twelve mice were mated and produced healthy offspring and the scientists also obtained hundreds of second generation, and more than 100 healthy third-generation mice.

The results achieved by the Chinese scientists provided a solid basis for further research on the application of iPS technology in stem cells, developmental biology and regeneration medicine.

"The method is more efficient and safer than the traditional cloning method. It will arouse people's interests in therapeutic cloning," said Nature.

"Most research progresses in small steps. Tiny represents a leap forward," said Bruce Whitelaw, head of the Division of Developmental Biology at the Roslin Institute, where the first cloned mammal, Dolly, was produced.

"The spirit of dedication to their scientific careers of the generation of my parents affected me deeply," Zeng said. Born in a family of scientists, she often went to learn how to conduct experiments in her parents' laboratory when she was a child.

She also participated in a genetic disease research team and went to mountain areas to research haemoglobinopathies. "The experience made me decide to devote myself to curing sicknesses by using science," she said.

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