Late scientist and educator Zhong Yang spread hope to rural area

By Chen Ziqi China Plus Published: 2018-04-10 17:31:03
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Reporter: Chen Ziqi; narrated by Luo Laiming

Zhong Yang is the late scientist and educator from Dudan University and Tibet University. He lost his life in a car accident during his business trip. [Photo: from China Plus]

Zhong Yang is the late scientist and educator from Fudan University and Tibet University. He lost his life in a car accident during his business trip. [Photo: from China Plus]

Friends and colleagues have been mourning the loss of much loved and respected educator and scientist Zhong Yong, who was tragically killed in a car accident during a business trip to Inner Mongolia on September 25 last year. Just 53 years of age, Zhong had devoted his whole life to his career in botany and education, making a wealth of contributions to his field. 

"Hello, everyone, I am Zhong Yang, and I'm a botanist and professor from Fudan University and Tibet University. I am happy today to have the opportunity to tell a story about seeds. Botanists often spread the concept that genes can save a country and seeds represent hope and future for nature," Zhong Yang spoke in a lecture last July to explain the importance of collecting seeds. 

He didn't know then that he would lose his life in a car accident just a couple of months later, while on a business trip to Inner Mongolia to promote his work as a botanist and educator which took him all over China, including the remotest and highest regions.

Scenery view of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau [Photo: from VCG]

Scenery view of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau [Photo: from VCG]

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is considered the largest scale gene database in China. It is home to more than a thousand types of Spermatophyta, or in other words--seed plants. Yet few scholars and botanists have explored this area and investigated these plants because of the extreme weather and shabby living conditions there. Zhong Yang was not afraid of these challenges and proposed going to the Plateau in 2001, to find out more about the vegetation in this region.

The late scientist and his team have traveled more than 500,000 kilometers over the past 16 years. Their footprints can be found in the most rural and deserted areas in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where they successfully collected more than 40 million seeds from more than a thousand types of plants – amounting to one fifth of the overall advanced plants in Tibet.

Zhong Yang was taking photos for plants, which was part of the procedure of collecting seed samples.[Photo: from China Plus]

Zhong Yang was taking photos for plants, which was part of the procedure of collecting seed samples. [Photo: from China Plus]

Zhu Bing studied under Zhong Yang. He learned from the great botanist that collecting seed samples was just the first step in botanic research. They were at a location of collecting at least 600 plant samples a year, and each type needed 5000 seed samples. There was also a strict restriction on choosing types. Different types had to be found at least 50 kilometers from each other. A task, says Zhu Bing, not easy to accomplish in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where the average altitude is more than 4000 meters above sea level.

"It is easy to collect seeds on the ground at sea level. It might only take 5 seconds to dig a seed out of the soil. But on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, people can hardly breathe, and you often have to take several deep breaths for about half a minute after one single movement."

Lhachung is a professor from the Faculty of Life Sciences at Tibet University, and he is a Tibetan student of Zhong Yang. He recalls what happened in 2013, when Zhong Yang had severe altitude sickness during their scientific expedition on Mount Qomolangma to look for the plants that grow at the highest altitude in the world.

"I told him to stay in the camp and we would collect seeds for him, because we are young and we are local, so we are used to this extreme weather. But Zhong said 'if you can do it, I have no excuse to stay put'," said Lhachung. 

[Photo: from China Plus]

[Photo: from China Plus]

Eventually, Zhong and his team found seed samples of a rare plant, Saussurea gnaphalodes, on the north mountain of Qomolangma, at an altitude of 6000 meters. He also created a new record, reaching the highest altitude that Chinese botanists had ever managed.

Over the many years of his investigations and scientific research, Zhong Yang gradually realized that he wasn't strong enough to do all of it alone, and he needed to encourage more young scholars to carry out botanic research in Tibet. And this was when his second identity, as an educator, emerged.

In the past 16 years, Zhong Yang assisted Tibet University to create many new historical records, including successfully applying for a qualification to teach ecological Ph.D. students; forming the first ever scientific research team of biology in Tibet; and leading the biology department of the university to be ranked among the best in the country.

[Photo: from China Plus]

[Photo: from China Plus]

Since 2010, Zhong Yang had volunteered to join programs to support the development of Tibet. In this period of time, he spent most of his time establishing a new mechanism for cultivating high-end talents. Tenzin Norbu, dean of the Postgraduate School of Tibet University, expresses his gratitude for Zhong's dedication.

"When Zhong Yang arrived, we thought he was just one of the other ordinary scholars. We have received many professors and academicians to our university, and they all left Tibet once they finished their research,” Tenzin Norbu says, “And it is understandable because people from outside Tibet find it very difficult to get used to the extreme weather here. Zhong Yang was an exception. He chose to stay for 16 years."

As well as being a botanist and educator, Zhong Yong was also in charge of an academic writing team that composed illustrated texts for the Shanghai Natural History Museum, covering diverse subjects including astronomy, geology, biology and the humanities. Bao Qijiong is head of the team of preparing all the background information for the display items. She says when she talked with Zhong about this intense task, Zhong accepted it without any hesitation.

"Zhong Yang spent his time either in Shanghai or in Tibet, so whenever we knew he was in Shanghai, we would contact him immediately. Sometimes, he only had half a day off, but he still visited us, coming all the way from Fudan University. He was very busy, but he paid attention to detail, maybe just a single word, and punctuation."

Zhong also provided rare snake samples and helped to transport eight frog samples from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the Shanghai Natural History Museum. These samples provided evidence to illustrate the formation of the very plateau itself.

On December 20, 2017, Fudan University held a memorial ceremony for Zhong Yang. Chen Gaoming, head of the Faculty of Life Science, described Zhong Yang as a person who spent his life-time pursuing his dream.

"Zhong Yang was dedicated to scientific research and devoted himself to education. The accident leaves us a lot to contemplate. Zhong Yang once said 'not only are great people bold in pursuing their dreams, but the individuals who pursue their dreams are great.' His whole life is spent as a complete interpretation of this saying," Chen Gaoming said. 

On March 29, 2018, Zhong Yang was awarded the honorary title of model worker by the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China. As a great educator and scientist, Zhong Yang inspired many students. They will continuously carry on Zhong's dream and be persistent in making them come true.

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