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【2015 Newly Elected Academician】Xi Zhenfeng: It comes naturally

APR . 01 2016

Peking University, Mar. 24, 2016: Xi Zhenfeng, professor of College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering at Peking University was elected as academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the other 5 professors from Peking University. 


Study Abroad: Accumulate, dig down and innovate

Xi was in Japan from 1993 to 1998, where he completed his Ph.D. and post-doctoral program and became an assistant professor before joining Peking University as an associate professor.
 
Recalling his days in Japan, Xi pointed out that the old generation of Japanese scientists, including 2010 Nobel laureate Akira Suzuki, do their research not for benefit or reputational, and that is the key to success.
 
When it came to the difference in academics between China and Japan, Xi illustrated it with an example, "When I was a student in Japan, what impressed me most is that Japanese students and researchers care more about the contents of scientific studies and the qualities of papers. However, our students care more about which journal  the paper is published on, but not about the papers themselves so much. I think that Japan has won Nobel prizes many times in recent years can be attributed to their rigorous academic attitude and solid accumulation.”
 
"In Japan, the research usually has strong continuity. The associate professors will take the position as the group leader if the professors are retired, so they can always dig down their research, which is different from the United States. To them, accumulation and digging down are both innovation as well,” Xi further explained.
 
Co-operative effect: It works like a scissor 
 
Xi designed a special logo for his group. “PKU XI GROUP”, “1998.4” and “CHEM IS TRY” are the outside part of the logo, they represent Xi’s group was founded in April, 1998 and chemistry is an experimental science respectively.
 
Co-operative effect is the principle of Xi’s research group, as can be seen in the group’s logo. The scissor in the center of the logo has three meanings: the group’s long-term goal is to ‘cut’ chemical bonds selectively with organometallic compounds and study new reactions; the co-operative effect is represented by the co-operation of a scissor’s two pieces of metal; the group’s concern for environmental issues is reflected by the green color of the scissor.
 
What is the essence of co-operative effect? “Organometallic compound plays an important role in synthetic chemistry, first as a reagent, and then as a catalyst,” answered Xi,“several Nobel laureates have used it as catalyst to synthesize pharmaceuticals and materials, and what I am researching on is just a tiny part of it. What makes our research different is our emphasis on co-operative effect: two metals in one molecule... When two metals are in a molecule, the reaction is different from that of mono-metallic reagents.”
 
As the basic research,  Xi’s study on ‘selective disconnection of unreactive bonds’ is not easy to be understood. “As natural resources are being gradually depleted, human society will increase demands on cheap and accessible raw materials. ‘Cutting’ bonds selectively can decompose harmful man-made substances, and the decomposition product can be recycled. It means a lot.” Guang Ming Daily interpreted the group’s research on organometallic chemistry this way, back in 2006.
 
Teaching benefits teachers as well as students 
 
"People cannot live without co-operative effects as well.” When he came back to China in 1998, the group had few graduate students and many undergraduates, which posed a challenge to the laboratory management. “I chose to give them autonomy, let them decide the division of labor, and encourage them to support each other.” It is the co-operative effect that combines each excellent student into a fabulous group.
 
Xi explained that another important thing in teacher-student relationship is to cherish each other’s time together. “It is the fate that all of us join the same group to do research and everyone has his own strength and weakness, so we should appreciate, learn from and support each other.”
 
In his eyes, attitude and interest are the most important quality for all students. “PKU students all have great gifts, but working hard is far better than that”.
 
Xi believes that teaching is as important as doing research and innovating. He proposed the principle of "Dig down into research, Keep innovating and Build confidence”. He thought that each of the three parts is indispensable to the other two.
 
Becoming Academician: It comes naturally 
 
As a newly elected academician, Xi did not have any special feeling. “First of all, I want to thank Peking University for the great platform it provides me with. Peking University has a free and relaxed environment for academics, which is rare,” Xi said,” I also want to thank the choice made by the era. As for the honor, I will work hard to do a better job, and remain cautious and conscientious in teaching.”
 
"Becoming an academician is not what I have expected. Instead, innovating and remaining down-to-earth are top priorities.” Xi is immersed in the joy brought by his research, and his hard working attitude endows him with scholarly detachment. He has been pursuing his academic goals freely at the international academic platform provided by Peking University for 17 years.
 
The scissor of co-operative effect has cut out a new generation of synthesis methods and tacit understanding among the group members. Along with the group, the College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering and Peking University, it has been through 17 years of gratitude.

Written by: Fan Wei
Edited by: Zhang Jiang
Source: PKU News (Chinese)