Pacific Rim Professor
After winning the 2013 People’s Republic of China Friendship Award last Fall, University Professor Michael Waterman has been elected a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The USC Dornsife professor of biological sciences, computer science and mathematics is among nine foreign members from seven countries to be elected to the Academy in 2013, and one of two Americans not of Chinese origin. Waterman has a joint appointment with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
“I’ve always been intrigued by China,” said Waterman, USC Associates Chair in Natural Sciences. “There is a long tradition of scholarship and learning, and the country is emerging to make important scientific contributions. Chinese students are important for graduate programs in the U.S. and Europe, and it’s gratifying to see science and mathematics rapidly develop in China.”
Over the past 16 years, Waterman has significantly contributed to the development of computational biology and bioinformatics in China. His recent honors recognize his scientific and educational contributions in China.
Waterman’s relationship with China began with his first visit in 1997. Academically, he has lectured and collaborated widely in the country. He also heads a six-person chair professorship team for a bioinformatics program at Beijing’s Tsinghua University — one of China’s top science and technology universities — that allows him to spend up to two months a year there teaching and conducting research. Since 2006, Waterman has served on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Partner Institute of Computational Biology (PICB) in Shanghai, overseeing a joint collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Germany’s Max Planck Society.
At Tsinghua University, Waterman teaches, advises and guides the research of undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. students.
“At the outset, I thought my main purpose was to teach the students at Tsinghua University something technical,” Waterman said. “Then, after completing one of my classes, one student told me how much she’d enjoyed it and we had a long conversation. Many of these students are looking to come to the U.S. or Europe for higher education. And while they’ve already really achieved something to be a student at Tsinghua, the idea of going abroad to receive an education is still fairly scary.
“But after a couple of weeks in my classes, I think they begin to understand me better and become more at ease, thinking ‘Oh! I could go to Stanford, for example, and sit in a class with an American professor and make sense out of it.’ I think it opens the door a little wider for them. So I realized getting Chinese students acquainted with an American professor can be just as important as the technical aspects of what I’m teaching them.”
Widely regarded as the founding father of computational biology, Waterman’s research concentrates on the creation and application of mathematics, statistics and computer science to molecular biology, particularly to DNA, RNA and protein sequence data.
The Chinese Academy of Sciences is the nation’s highest academic institution in natural sciences in addition to its top scientific and technological advisory body, and national comprehensive research and development center in natural sciences and technology. The ceremony will take place in Beijing in June 2014.