30 years and Professor: the story of Changsheng Wu
The death of his grandfather in 1988 motivates Changsheng Wu to become a scientist. In 2016, he is awarded the C.J. Kok Jury Award for his thesis on novel antibiotics. Two years later, he will become a Professor at Shangdong University, at the age of 30 years.
Growing up in nature
Changsheng Wu, born in a distant mountain village in China, is destined to grow up being a farmer. During his childhood, he has to do many farm chores, such as growing rice in the paddy field, collecting wood in the mountains, and seeking snails in the pond. As a result, he gets in touch with true nature. ‘I asked myself many ‘why’s’. For instance, when it rains too much, rice easily gets the sheath blight disease. This is a big disaster for many poor families, as rice is their main source of income. I wondered why this happened, and how exactly.’
‘Scientists should take responsibility for those people who need help’
Later on, Wu begins to understand the existence of invisible micro-organisms and their key role in ecological systems. ‘More importantly, I realised that these little bugs not only kill people but also can produce life-saving chemicals.’ Medicines play an important role in Wu’s life. This importance starts when his grandfather dies of cancer when Wu is only three years old. ‘He was not medically treated because we were too poor’, Wu says. ‘Even nowadays, there are still millions of poor people worldwide who lack good healthcare. Scientists should take responsibility for those people who need help, and it is very important to develop new effective but cheap drugs to win the battle with diseases.’
A scientific career
At the age of nineteen, Wu leaves his mountain village and goes to the local university. Later, he receives a China Scholarship Council grant and decides to come to Leiden, to do a PhD in the research group of Gilles van Wezel and Young Hae Choi. ‘First of all, Leiden University is a very famous University’, Wu explains his motivation to come to Leiden. ‘Secondly, I really liked the research proposal on antibiotics discovery from actinomycetes. When I applied for this project, Van Wezel and Hae Choi gave me very positive feedback. And Holland is very beautiful!’, he concludes.
In Leiden, Wu explores innovative methods of developing new antibiotics more simply and more easily. He shows that by applying modern analytical methods, molecular structures can be linked to biological and physical functions. This makes it possible to hunt for novel antibiotics. Wu proves that his method works by discovering a new type of antibiotic called Lugdunomycine. His thesis receives the distinction cum laude, and he also wins the C.J. Kok Jury Award. According to the jury, his thesis has an impressively wide and original approach.
From Leiden to New York to Shangdong
Wu is very grateful for his time at the Institute of Biology Leiden and for winning the C.J. Kok Jury Award. ‘I’m especially grateful to my promotor Van Wezel and my daily supervisor Young Hae Choi, who gave me valuable guidance and support. And thanks to the C.J. Kok Jury Award, I later succeeded in the application for a Rubicon grant, which gave me the precious chance to continue my study at Rockefeller University in New York. There I have learned a lot in the field of metagenomics, which is very helpful for my future research. All in all, I have to say that the C.J. Kok Jury Award plays a very important role in my academic career!’
In the coming five years, Wu will work at Shandong University. He aims to find new drugs from microbial resources, such as actinomycetes and myxobacteria. And although he has achieved much at a young age, Wu stays humble: ‘For me, my early professorship is not something to show off with. It rather is a good motive to make bigger contributions to science and society.’