Late professor honored for devotion to work

A Fudan University academic who was dedicated to education, biology research and aiding Tibet development was posthumously honored as an "Excellent Party Member." 
Ti Gong

A picture of Professor Zhong Yang visiting Shanghai’s first forest of mangrove trees.

A Fudan University academic who was dedicated to education, biology research and aiding Tibet development was posthumously honored yesterday as an “Excellent Party Member” by the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party of China.

Zhong Yang, who was a professor of life sciences at Fudan University and dean of the university’s graduate school, was known for his contributions to the fields of botany, ecology, bioinformatics and evolutionary biology in his career of three decades.

Zhong was also well known for spending 16 years to assist Tibet’s development. He collected about 40 million plant seeds to build a genetic bank of plants that grow exclusively in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and helped to develop education of ecology in Tibet.

On September 25, Zhong died in a car accident during a business trip in Erdos City, Inner Mongolia. He was 53.

Yesterday, his colleagues and students shared their memories of him with the media.

In 1979, Zhong, who was then 15, joined a class for gifted students at the University of Science and Technology of China, and he studied radio electronics.

After graduating in 1984, Zhong was assigned to the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Botany in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, as the institute was building a computer laboratory.

Zhao Bin, Zhong’s close friend who was assistant to the dean of Fudan University’s school of life sciences, was confused by Zhong’s decision to move to Wuhan.

“But he was confident in the job,” Zhao recalled. “He said he had spent only three years to learn about radio electronics at the university, but he had more time to learn botany in his life.”

Zhong became so interested in botany that it became his life’s career. His approaches to research differed to those of other botanists because of his academic background, Zhao said. 

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Zhong Yang in Tibet

Zhong excelled as a botanist and he was repeatedly fast-tracked for promotions in the following 15 years. In 2000, he became a deputy director of the Institute of Botany. 

But he resigned the position that same year and left for Shanghai for a professorship at Fudan University because he had been dreaming of being a teacher like his parents.

Zhong treated every student like “a seed of hope” and would not give up on any of them, said Zhao.

Xu Yiqin, a former student of Zhong, said Zhong was always the navigator when they conducted research in the wild and he made sure the roads were safe. He did so even after he came down with gout. 

Xu said whenever Zhong’s students had questions, they would write e-mails to Zhong.

“No matter how late we wrote to him, we could always get his replies the next day,” he said.

Along with his colleagues, Zhong helped to raise Fudan University’s education of ecology and built laboratories with global influence. 

“He focused on botany before coming to Shanghai, but turned to ecology when he was at Fudan because he felt it was more important to Shanghai and China,” said Chen Haoming, Party secretary of Fudan University’s life sciences school.

Zhao said Zhong had foresight, publishing papers in respected international science journals and books. Zhong also translated some important English books to Chinese.

Around 2001, Zhong published an introductory book on bioinformatics, the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes. At that time, bioinformatics was a relatively new field in the United States. Many Chinese scientists had never even heard of it. 

The book is still being used as a textbook at Fudan University. 

Zhong Yang in Tibet

Zhong also created Shanghai’s first forest of mangrove trees, which only grow in tropical and subtropical areas. It is called “beach guard” because of its ability to clean the seawater and the air. It also prevents winds and waves from damaging the shore. 

Tibet was also an important part of Zhong’s life, as he was dedicated to the ecological protection of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Before turning his attention to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, he realized that biodiversity in the metropolis cities of Shanghai and Beijing were small, but the cities hosted about half of China’s botany researchers.

After conducting a survey of places with rich biodiversity, Zhong found the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau worthy of his attention because it had more than 6,000 kinds of plateau plants that accounted for 18 percent of plant species in China. About 1,000 plant species were exclusive to Tibet.

“He believed Tibet was a rich land of seeds that had not received enough attention, as no seed pools in the world contained seeds from Tibet,” said Zhao. “He wanted to fill in the blanks and Tibet became his second home.”

In the past 16 years, Zhong traveled about 500,000 kilometers in the plateau with his students, and climbed mountains higher than 6,000 meters. Together, they collected more than 40 million plant seeds — a genetic treasure trove for China and the world — and registered more than 30,000 huge cypress trees in Tibet.

Zhong had said that the plant seeds collected could prove useful to the world in the future. 

His research not only enabled him to make great achievements and win many scientific awards, it also improved Tibet’s education and research capability.

Zhong’s work in Tibet also led to his partnership with the Tibet University.

Starting in 2008, he joined three different groups of cadres from Shanghai — over a period of nine years — to support Tibet’s development and helped the autonomous region to secure a grant for ecological research from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Zhong’s colleagues, students and relatives said he had a very hectic life and achieved many things. It was common to receive his e-mails that were sent around 1am to 2am, they said.

In 2015, he suffered a stroke because of chronic fatigue, and received treatment in an intensive care unit. 

When he regained consciousness, the first things he did were to call Fudan University and asked them to rearrange lessons for his students, and wrote letters to the government with suggestions on protecting Tibet’s biodiversity.

Due to his busy schedule, Zhong usually took the earliest or latest flights for his business trips. He was heading to the airport in Erdos city at 5am for a flight to Shanghai on September 25, and he had bought a ticket for a flight to Tibet on September 28.

But Zhong did not take the flight because a car in which he was a passenger that was traveling to the airport collided with a forklift.

His death caused public sorrow and a video about him has been viewed more than 12 million times online. 

A Fudan University professor wrote a poem for him that said Zhong was like a seed that had disappeared by returning to earth.

Ti Gong

Zhong Yang with his students

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