Prof Rao Yi Prof Rao Yi
Professor Rao Yi

Doctor of Science, honoris causa (2023)

In 1985, 23-year-old Rao Yi left China to begin his graduate studies at the University of California in San Francisco. Studying abroad at the time was a privilege few could afford and many students who left China never returned. But not Rao Yi.

That same year, China’s patriarch leader, Deng Xiaoping delivered a speech titled “Devote Special Effort to Education”. The “nation’s strength and sustained economic development”, he said “depend more and more on the educational qualifications of the working people and on the quantity and quality of intellectuals.” “Leaders who neglect education”, he told his cadres, “are neither far-sighted nor mature, and they are therefore unable to lead the drive for modernization.”

Throughout his brilliant academic career, Professor Rao Yi has embraced that ideal and understanding that education, specifically the advancement of science, would make China strong. He is an advocate and leading reformer in education. Over the next few decades, Professor Rao played a pivotal role in ensuring many more talented Chinese scientists like himself could contribute to the world of discovery in the country and beyond.

In 1996, while still in the United States, Professor Rao worked with two of his friends he knew to establish a joint laboratory in Shanghai. A few years later, he worked with a German scientist from the Max Planck Institute to co-found the Shanghai Advanced Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 2004, Professor Rao helped in establishing the National Institute of Biological Sciences, Beijing.

Professor Rao returned to China in 2007, and became the dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University. Frustrated by the bureaucracy involved in awarding scientific research grants at the time, Professor Rao raised questions both inside and outside China on why connections should matter more than merit in funding decisions. In a 2004 article published in Nature, Professor Rao writes about the need to switch from “rule-by-men to rule-by-merit” and how that would affect the future of science and technology in China. To ensure talented scientists could focus on research, he established the tenure track at the School of Life Sciences. He helped to put Chinese science on a world stage by insisting that the performance of academics must be peer-reviewed internationally and he set a high academic standard for hiring and firing at Peking University.

Over the following 10 years, Professor Rao established Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences, IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Peking University, and Chinese Institute for Brain Research, Beijing. Since 2019, Professor Rao has served as President of Capital Medical University. In 2023, he established the Chinese Institutes for Medical Research,Beijing. Throughout the last 20 plus years, Professor Rao has been involved in reforming or establishing academic and educational institutions while criticizing what went wrong in Chinese science and education at the same time. He is not just a commentator, but also a major builder of science and education in China.

But he really didn’t have to do any of that. After all, his academic prowess could easily have landed him a comfortable life in an ivory tower anywhere in the world. After graduating from what was then Jiangxi Medical College, Rao Yi got his doctorate at UCSF, and then on to Harvard for his post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

In 2000, he was awarded the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Fellowship. Six years after that, he became the first Elsa A. Swanson Research Professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

His first 20 years of research focused on using genetics and molecular biology to study neural development. For example, how a secreted protein called Slit, guides the direction of migrating neurons, nerve fibers, white blood cells as well as brain tumour cells. In the next decade or so, he worked on what governs social behaviours at a molecular and cellular level. For example, he and his team identified the neurotransmitters that trigger aggression in fruit flies and affects courtship in mice. Over the past few years, Professor Rao has been working on how molecules regulate sleep. He departed from the often-travelled road of genetics and pioneered the approach of biochemistry in dissecting molecular mechanisms of sleep.

Professor Rao’s dedication to advance science in China has also benefitted researchers beyond the mainland. He is a founding member of the Science Committee of the Future Science Prize. Since 2016, the Committee has recognised scientists in life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and computer sciences every year. Recipients include researchers from the mainland as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Among them, professors Yuen Kwok-yung and Malik Peiris who we all know here in Hong Kong, had played pivotal roles in the fight against SARS and Covid-19.

In 2018, Professor Rao was a co-founder of the Xplorer Prize, which rewards young scientific and technological talents, by now numbering 248. He worked in partnership with other giants in Chinese science including the Nobel Laureate Chen Ning-yang, together with business leaders such as Ma Huateng, the founder of Tencent. In 2022, he became one of the founding members for the New Cornerstone Investigators Program which supports some 50 scientists each year.

It may take brains to conduct research, write papers or even make major discoveries. But it takes vision, courage and persistence to bring your country with you on that path of progress. Life sciences at Peking University has ranked as the fastest growing in the world for five consecutive years as measured by Nature Index. Last year, data published by Clarivate Analytics showed that the number of Chinese scientists who published papers of high impact had increased for a fifth consecutive year. China has been recognised as the world’s second biggest economy since 2016 and the country is certainly catching up quickly on the scientific front, thanks to the hard work of the likes of Professor Rao Yi and many of his colleagues in China.

For his contribution to science and education, Hong Kong Baptist University would like to confer on Professor Rao Yi the award of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.