Leading an academic research group

An interview with Professor Qianghui Zhou of Wuhan University

‘’I felt greatly honored to be selected as a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist in 2011. Being a member of the high-profile Reaxys Prize Club has been really helpful for my career development.’’ -Professor Qianghui Zhou

Professor Qianghui Zhou was one of the finalists of the second edition of the Reaxys PhD Prize back in 2011. His PhD research included the first enantioselective synthesis of (-)-englerin A, an anti-renal cancer sesquiterpene and an efficient formal synthesis of cyclopeptide RP-66453. After he completed his graduate studies and a year as a research associate with Professor Dawei Ma at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry (SIOC), he joined Professor Phil S. Baran’s team at the Scripps Research Institute (TRSI) after receiving a post-doctoral fellowship from SIOC and Zhejiang Medicine. Since 2015, he has been head of his own research group at Wuhan University, holding joint professorships in the College of Chemistry and Molecular Sciences and the Institute for Advanced Studies.

Professor Qianghui Zhou

You have certainly had a successful career, going from an impressive PhD project to an interesting international post-doctorate and now heading up your own group as a professor at Wuhan University.

Thank you for saying that, but honestly, I think it’s still too early to say I’m successful in my research career! I am certainly doing my best with my group to achieve this goal. I started my independent research at Wuhan University just four years ago. I have indeed established a middle-sized research group, and my research is on the right track, with 14 high-profile research papers in the past four years.

Do you see yourself primarily as a researcher or an educator?

I definitely see myself primarily as a researcher because that’s how I was trained. However, I am preparing myself to be the best educator I can be since I now have those responsibilities as well.

Professor Qianghui Zhou with his first PhD student, Dr. Ze-Shui Liu, at Dr. Liu's graduation in 2018.

Professor Qianghui Zhou with his first PhD student, Dr. Ze-Shui Liu, at Dr. Liu's graduation in 2018.

Did you ever consider working in industry? Or did you always feel that academia was your "home"?

I did search for industry jobs after receiving my PhD in 2010, and I even won two job offers. However, I changed my mind when I received the fellowship from the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry and Zhejiang Medicine, which would sponsor an overseas post-doctorate position in a top-level lab. With the help of this fellowship, I joined Professor Phil Baran’s lab at the Scripps Research Institute. That experience paved my way to Wuhan University.

So, as a member of both the Ma family (Prof. Dawei Ma, my PhD supervisor) and the Baran family, I do indeed feel academia is my home. Meanwhile, we also have many family members working in industry, and I have close interactions with them. I believe academia and industry are just like brothers — they should help each other for mutual development.

That’s a lovely way to look at it. Speaking of networking and development, do you believe that being a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist in 2011 helped you in your career?

Yes, I do. I felt greatly honored to be selected as a Reaxys PhD Prize finalist in 2011. Being a member of the high-profile Reaxys Prize Club has been really helpful for my career development. For example, with the help of the Reaxys Prize Club Travel Grant, I was able to attend ISHC24 in Shanghai in 2013 and deliver a lecture there. What’s more, before the conference, Dr. David Evans, who was in charge of the Reaxys Prize Club at the time, generously shared his knowledge of presentation skills with me. I also benefit greatly from other aspects of the Club, including the local member meetings during ACS meetings, private access to Reaxys, and social networking through the Reaxys Prize Club LinkedIn group.

Why did you decide to enter the Reaxys PhD Prize?

Actually, I hadn’t planned it! The advertisement of the Reaxys PhD Prize 2011 came out just after I published my first research paper in Angewandte Chemie in early 2010. I thought I should try out.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in their academic career in the chemical sciences?

My advice would be: first, find a good research platform with well-equipped facilities and a supportive academic ecosystem; second, hire at least one talented research assistant right from the start; and third, keep focused on your research and your team in the first five years to ensure that both are of the highest quality.

You mentioned using Reaxys. How do you use it in your work as a researcher? Can you discuss any specific challenges that Reaxys helps you overcome?

I choose Reaxys rather than other research solutions because of its user-friendly style. As a chemist in the field of total synthesis, I use it frequently to find synthetic targets, design novel synthetic routes, probe the feasibility of key reactions, identify the right starting materials, and check their availability.

Reaxys is especially helpful for finding unusual chemoselectivity precedents, which is generally required in efficient synthesis design. I have benefited a lot from this function.

Thank you very much for your time, Professor Zhou.