The zest of Zhejiang

Neuroscientist Helen Hu moved back to her hometown to take advantage of the vibrant atmosphere of science. She conducts research on depression at the Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou.

Why did you return to Hangzhou?

Medical school is a supportive and nurturing environment where I can grow. Being close to family and friends is a plus.

What were you doing before?

After graduating from Peking University in Beijing, I did a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, followed by a postdoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. I joined the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai in 2008.

What do you like about Zhejiang University?

We foster a strong culture of interdisciplinary research. My own lab collaborates with engineering, computer science, pharmacology and chemistry teams. Zhejiang University has several affiliated hospitals that provide a good platform for translational medicine research, and it has a reputation for a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Tell us about your team and current research

It’s a purely Chinese team right now, but as we grow, I’m looking at taking on foreign students. In 2016, we discovered how the anesthetic ketamine blocks electrical bursts from an area of ​​the brain and relieves symptoms of severe depression. We’re talking to scientists and physicians around the world about turning research into antidepressants.

Are you planning new cooperation abroad?

Our Neuroscience Center is going to establish a program with the University of Toronto in Canada for students and postdocs to work abroad. We have formal collaborations with the University of California, Los Angeles, Columbia University in New York City and the University of Melbourne in Australia.

How has Hangzhou changed since you left?

Hangzhou was the top honeymoon destination in China. Now, it is still beautiful, but its tourism-based economy has changed. The atmosphere is modern and international. It feels different. I almost never take out my wallet; I pay using my mobile phone.

Are you surprised by the change?

Change was always a part of life here. There is a saying: The three big eastern economies, Beijing, Shanghai and Zhejiang, have different business models. Beijing has state-owned businesses, Shanghai favors foreign companies and big brands, and Zhejiang cultivates entrepreneurship.

What practical benefits do you think China has?

I probably spend less time writing grants than my peers in the USA.

What progress do you expect to see in the Chinese research environment in the future?

As basic research accelerates and more graduate students and postdocs are doing excellent work in China, I hope we can provide similar support to trained people at home and abroad. Currently, some career-development grants are designed for Chinese scientists who have studied and worked abroad. Now is the time to extend these schemes to all eligible young trainees.

What attracts young scientists to Zhejiang?

With its nice climate and low cost of living, I think Zhejiang has become as attractive to researchers as Beijing or Shanghai, if not more so. Opportunities are increasing.