Lixin Wu and the rising tide of Chinese oceanography

I met Lixin Wu when I was at the Ocean University of China in Qingdao for a writing workshop (now called Nature Masterclasses). Several things impressed me about Lixin right away. First, he’s a lot of fun to be around and equally at ease in formal situations and banquets. Then, he’s clearly an inspiration to his staff and colleagues. Finally, he has big visions for his own science, the OUC, and Chinese marine science in general.

Used by permission.
Used by permission.

Lixin has followed the career path of many notable Chinese scientists: educated in China, moved to the West for a postdoc, stayed for years, and returned to China for a variety of reasons (not just financial!). I was keen to hear the details of the story, and it didn’t disappoint.

Lixin was born at the dawn of the cultural revolution, but his family was too poor to suffer many of its depredations. Instead, largely on his own motivation to leave the countryside and inspired by the Chinese space program, Lixin studied hard enough to get into the prestigious Tsinghua University and then, after graduating in the top three of his class, into Peking University (sort of like the Harvard of China). Throughout, Lixin studied fluid mechanics.

He dreamed of getting into Stanford, where the best work in mechanics was being done at the time. That didn’t work out, but Lixin was keen to pursue his own American dream and ultimately got into a postdoc program at Rutgers, again working on mechanics. The initial shocks of moving to America included the comparatively massive paycheck and loneliness, at least until his family could come to join him.

Then a choice loomed: move to Japan, for a great deal more money, or head to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to launch a new line of work into ocean dynamics. Still working on the American dream, Lixin moved to Madison, ultimately staying in the US for 11 years. But then, as is now so often the case, China came calling with a tempting offer to return home. The money was good, but Lixin also felt a responsibility to give something back to China in return for years of support in graduate school. And, after achieving his American dream, he felt a bit adrift.

And return he did, to a chaired position at the OUC. In spite of not knowing the Chinese ocean community at all, Lixin rapidly moved up the career ladder, publishing numerous papers in Nature-branded journals and reaching the level of Vice President at the OUC and director of China’s first-ever national laboratory, for research on Marine Science and Technology. How he gets it all done, I have no idea.

Along the way, we talk about Chinese science when he was a student …”You cannot imagine … at my time, no PhD student can publish a paper in Nature or Science” and what makes American science click…”Americans are high efficiency in work and very motivated and open minded … sometimes they do have creative ideas in science, and also quite humorous”.

Lixin has huge plans for the future, including a breathtakingly massive mooring array, a fascinating merger of ocean floats and gliders, and major contributions to deep ARGO.  And, I’m sure, many more delicious banquets are in the works (Qingdao being in the heart of Shandong cuisine, after all).

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