Interview with Dr Guojie Zhang

Categories: Meet the researchers

We interviewed Dr. Guojie Zhang at the occasion of EURAXESS Share event "Advance Your Research through Mobility" during which the EU-funded researcher introduced the Marie Skłodowska-Curie scheme to Shanghai-based audience.

Dr. Guojie Zhang has just been appointed as tenure track Assistant Professor at the Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen (Centre of Social Evolution), which hosted his Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship (2012-2014; "European Fellowship" under Horizon 2020). As Associate Director of National Genebank at BGI-Shenzhen, he has pioneered the application of genomic technologies in evolutionary studies of ants, birds, bats, fish and other non-model organisms to reveal the animal evolution history and the molecular mechanism of adaptation. Guojie Zhang has published 70 peer-reviewed papers including 11 in Nature or Science as a leading author, including the Avian Phylogenomics Project.

The large-scale Avian Phylogenomics Project under his co-leadership has just been highlighted by Science in a special issue of the journal released on 12th December 2014. As a breakthrough explaining the evolution of birds, it also got significant attention throughout global media outlets such as The Economist, Reuters, The Guardian etc.

Dr Zhang, what is your research background?

I graduated from Xiamen University in 2004 and then I started a joint PhD programme between Kunming Institute of Zoology and BGI Shenzhen in 2005. I began working on molecular evolution and comparative genomics. I started my PhD at a right time when a new generation of sequencing, a very important genomics technology, appeared. I started working on this in 2007 when it became first commercially available.

Since then I participated in a lot of works in comparative genomics, especially leading de novo animal genomics study at BGI and using comparative genomics tools to understand the evolution history of diverse animals, demographic history of animal populations, and their adaptation mechanisms.

How did you start working with European partners?

After I finished my PhD in 2010, I continued working at BGI. In 2011, I received the Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship, because I am very interested in eusocial animals - bees, ants, or termites. They have highly advanced societies, just like humans. They evolved the royal system, labour division, soldiers, workers, who participate on various labour tasks in the society. I think they could be good models to study social behaviour evolution. This is how I started working with the Centre for Social Evolution at the Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen.

So you knew your host institution well before you applied.

Yes, I knew the people well, especially the director of the centre, Professor Koos Boomsma, who is very well-known in his field. I visited the institute in

November 2010 and stayed for one month, which was a kind of a sabbatical for me. I saw that the people were very satisfied with their personal lives and also their research, and everyone was friendly there. That was one important reason why I wanted to join them.

The second very important reason was that at that time, I was trying to move into a different research direction. I planned to do some functional study on behaviour using ants as models based on my previous results on comparative genomics in ants. And to develop this, I needed a place that could provide me the facilities to rear ants, as well as people with experience and knowledge about the behavioural ecology of ants. The Copenhagen institute was the perfect place, as they have worked on ants for over 20 years, and they also wanted to start some genomics works at that time. So we had very complimentary research interests.

How did you learn about the Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship in the first place?

I learned about it from Professor Boomsma. After my visit to his centre, I started thinking whether there is any possibility to move there, as I felt it was the place for me to start a new direction. In May 2011, I organised a meeting on eusocial insect genomics in Shenzhen. Professor Boomsma attended that meeting too. We discussed together the plan during the meeting and he suggested to me I should apply for the Marie Curie fellowship.

Do you have any tips for future applicants?

Firstly, it is very important to know each other with your host institution before your application. The second thing is that you need to find a common interest - a complimentary research plan where you could fit into the institute. It is not only you who will benefit from the grant - you also have to consider how other people in the host institution could benefit from you.

It is a highly competitive grant, so you should give yourself enough time to prepare. When I wrote the grant I only had three months left, and I also had a lot of other things to do, so basically, had not much time to edit it... Everything was in rush.

Are there many differences in conducting research or getting funding between the two places?

There are a lot of differences between Denmark and China, and many of these are based on culture. For me, the most important is their different scientific systems. While in Europe, scientific research society has been established for several hundred years and the evaluation system is transparent, the scientific research system in China was established within 40 years and the evaluation system is not as mature.

Although there are more opportunities in China now than before, the system prefers to support well established researchers. In Europe, the funding system is more transparent. Although the competition is high, young researchers can still have a chance to receive big funding. It is relatively harder for junior scientists in China to survive. And most junior scientists in China do not get paid very well.

Why is scientific collaboration between Europe and China important?

We can see a substantial increase in scientific research collaboration between China and other countries. I myself have greatly benefitted from such collaborations. I just published a project on bird genomes in a special issue of Science. It is a big international project, led by myself, Erich Jarvis at the Duke University, and Tom Gilbert from University of Copenhagen. We have resolved the long debate regarding the question of modern bird family tree using 48 bird genomes. This project is very successful and has produced over 30 papers. One of the main reasons behind the success of this project is the good collaboration of over 200 scientists from 21 countries.

Can you tell us more about the project?

The evolutionary relationship among modern bird species has been debated for centuries, since Darwin. It is very hard to resolve because the ancestors of modern birds have experienced a rapid radiation, called ‘big bang' of the speciation.

In the past, we could only use morphological data or few genetic data to build the phylogenetic tree. The problem is that with few DNA sequences, you can genome data, it is possible for us to provide a better solution for the phylogenetic analysis. Therefore, we have sequenced 48 bird species representing all the major branches of birds. This is so far the largest scale of genomics study for non-human organisms.

This project lasted four years from 2010 to 2014. Over 200 scientists from 80 institutions in the world have been involved. We just finished it this year and published eight papers in Science as a special issue on 12th December. A project of such scale is hard to be done by a single institute or a single country. Thanks very much to the Marie Curie funding that enabled me to stay in Europe, so it was more convenient for me to discuss the project with other researchers there.

You finished your PhD in 2010, gained the Marie Curie fellowship in 2011. You have been one of the leaders of the Avian Phylogenomics Project and applied also for a European Research Council grant. What a rocket start!

My main research field, comparative genomics is very new. Most of the progress has been made after the Human Genomic Project, which only finished 13 years ago. And I started my PhD at the right time when the new generation sequencing technology appeared. This technology is a great innovation that has now been applied in many fields in biology. My group at BGI developed many tools in the data analyses, which have allowed me to initiate a number of animal genomics studies using this technology in the past few years.

Comparative genomics study is a powerful tool to uncover the evolutionary history and evolutionary patterns that we could not observe before. And it is also very useful to provide a correlation between genotype and phenotype. However, to reveal their causal link and the exact function of genes, we had to move on to the next step and work on the functional genomics study. In my ERC application, I have planned to work on eusocial insects, and study their complex eusocial system with functional genomics data.

How can we enhance the mobility of European researchers to China and vice versa?

You are correct that there are fewer international researchers who would consider working in China. The current situation reflects the truth that scientific research in China is still under development. We can see that Chinese researchers have recently made great achievements in some fields. But most research labs are dominated by domestic researchers.

Part of the reasons might be that most Chinese researchers do not play well in public media to advocate themselves, thus do not have a chance to attract good students outside China. Most labs in China don't even have their website in English. It is thus very hard for foreign students to find relevant information.

In other words, Europeans don't know what is going on in Chinese research.

Even for me this information is difficult to find. Most of the lab websites are very simple and have not been updated for a long time. It is even harder for foreign researchers to find English information in detail.

What could China or Denmark improve?

I found most European students could really enjoy themselves in their research. Most of them choose doing research because of their own interest. They have very good motivation for doing science. In China, a lot of students continue their PhD simply because it is very hard to find a job with a bachelor or master degree. Although Chinese students work very hard, many don't actually enjoy their scientific research.

It is the same for the senior researchers. Many lab leaders in China are very busy with meetings and funding. They have little time to communicate with students or think about their own projects. And also I can see a third difference regarding scientific meetings. Based on my experience, many meetings in China are not very useful and insightful; many researchers do not take it seriously and only present results that they published long time ago. I have even seen people using the same slides for several years in different meetings. The communication is also inefficient, as people mostly talk about funding rather than the projects during the breaks.

I participated on many small workshops in the US or Europe. These workshops only invited a small group of people and strictly focus on scientific questions and collaboration on a specific topic. It is hard to see similar meetings in China. This is something we need to improve.

Dr Zhang, thank you for the discussion!