Greatest Impact

Shi is founding president of China’s Westlake University.


In 2008, Yigong Shi (Ph.D. ’95) had reached the pinnacle of success in the eyes of his colleagues at Princeton — where he was a full professor — and around the world. Then he surprised many when he declined a position to become a principal investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute to return to his home country of China.

“My lab was supported by more than $2 million per year in research funds. My life was all set based on the criteria of most of my fellow countrymen. Even though my return to China was a surprise to them, it was a natural move to me,” says Shi, who was intent on going where his work would have the greatest impact.

A decade later — after serving as dean for the School of Life Sciences and then vice president of Tsinghua University in Beijing (where he had earned his B.S. in 1989) — Shi launched Westlake University in the city of Hangzhou (province of Zhejiang), where he is the founding and current president.

The research university’s uniqueness stems from the fact that it’s the first and only “new type” university in the history of modern China — meaning it’s both public and private, receiving support from governmental and private entities.

Established in 2018, it currently has 200 faculty members, 90% of whom received their training in other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom. Enrolled in its schools of science life sciences and engineering are 1,300 Ph.D.-level students (with 100 graduates to date) and 150 undergraduates. The university’s two campuses, the original Yunqi (10 acres) and new Yungu (220 acres), have nearly 200 independent research labs in six core areas.

Shi’s typical day begins with a six-mile run on campus, followed by meetings, lectures, seminars, research and instruction. He looks back fondly on his days at Johns Hopkins as both a Ph.D. candidate and postdoc, working in the lab of his academic advisor, Jeremy Berg. “When I reflect on my memories there, I get homesick,” he says. He credits the intercampus Program in Molecular Biophysics for his training in cutting-edge research.

Describing his leadership style as decisive and proactive, Shi says, “Once I make a decision, I try everything I can to get it done.” Along with his contributions as a molecular biologist and academic leader, he has published more than 200 peer-reviewed research articles on the life sciences. “I’m always looking for an opportunity to apply my strengths to benefit all humankind,” he says.