In the second interview of our series interviewing inspiring female researchers to celebrate International Women' Day, EURAXESS interviewed Professor Zhihong Hu (Wuhan Institute of Virology, CAS) about her career and contribution to Sino-European research collaboration.
Zhihong Hu is a professor at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. She is the Director of Virus Resource Center and the leader of Systematic Virology Research Group, Wuhan Institute Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Professor Hu has gained her PhD in Science, Majoring in Virology, at the Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands, where she has subsequently held a Marie Curie fellowship. She has been a visiting professor also at Cornell University, and been based at Wuhan Institute of Virology in CAS since 1989.
Prof Hu's major research interests are insect viruses (especially baculoviruses) and tick borne viruses (especially bunyaviruses), viral-host interactions, metagenomics, identification and isolation of new viruses, phylogeny, pathogenesis, etc. She has published more than 150 papers.
Prof Hu participates in the European Virus Archive goes global (EVAg) project funded by European Commission's Horizon 2020. She is the leading scientist of EVAg in Wuhan Institute of Virology. More information about the EVAg project find attached PDF (1 pager from EU China tour).
1. Professor Hu, please tell us about your research.
My research is about systematic Virology. We try to understand how many virus species there are in the universe, and what their functions are. We study the relationship of viruses and their hosts, and generate knowledge and techniques that can be used for the benefit of mankind and our ecosystem. One particular virus that I focus on, is baculovirus, which can be used to control agricultural and forest pests, and can also be used to produce vaccines.
2. How would you describe the gender balance in your field?
Let me take our institute as an example. We have programmes for graduate students. Among 255 graduate students, 53% are female. Among our staff members, 47% are female. However, at higher level, males are dominant. Among 35 PIs (principle investigators), 7 (20%) are female. Which means that female has an equal chance to participate in graduate studies and be hired as a researcher, but somehow only a few of them end up at the top level.
3. You have also held a prestigious EU Marie Curie fellowship. How did this influence your research career?
Looking back, I would like to say that the Marie Curie fellowship played an essential role in my career. It was in my early research days and initiated my connection to the international research field. I was very lucky to get this fellowship to work at Dr. Just Vlak's laboratory in Wageningen Agricultural University, and I ended up as a PhD student of Dr. Vlak.
Since then, the collaboration between my lab and Dr. Vlak's lab has lasted for more than 20 years. We set up a joint-laboratory in Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, which allows scientists from both sides to apply for joint-grants, to exchange students and staff members, and also to publish joint-papers. When I was in Dr. Vlak's lab, I met many scientists from all over the world, and those scientists are still my collaborators.
4. What are the biggest questions or challenges researchers currently face in your field, virology?
First, we still know very few viruses. So far, there are 1.6 million described species in the world, but among them, only about 3000 are viruses. This is because most viruses we know are from human, or from plants and animals which are important to human beings. However, these kinds of viruses represent only a tiny part of the whole viral space. So we need to discover how many viruses there are in the universe, and what kind of function they play in the ecosystem. Second, emerging infectious viral diseases. Nowadays people are familiar with SARS-CoV, Ebola and Zika virus. Those are emerging or re-emerging viruses which cause epidemic around the world. We need to understand how these viruses emerged, and how to control them. Anti-viral drugs and vaccines need to be developed.
Professor Zhihong Hu talked about her research with European partners at last May in Wuhan at the opening of the EU-China Research and Innovation Tour.She introduced also collaboration with France within the framework of the P4 biosafety lab in Wuhan, first in Asia, built in close cooperation with Jean Mérieux BSL-4 Laboratory in Lyon, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the Wuhan government.
5. What does your average day look like? Tell us about your roles and responsibilities.
Monday to Friday are my working days. I go to the office at 8:30, and work until 12:30. Then from 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm, in a typical working day, I take a few hours to discuss with my students and my colleagues about the experimental results, guide the students for what to do next. It is the most exciting moments as often I see progress of the students and novel results. Depending on the level of the students, some need guidance on the direction of the research, some need encouragement, some need help to understand the significance of their results. The discussion also inspire me of what to do next. For the rest of the time, I work on manuscripts, writing grants applications, reviewing papers, etc.
At night, I take about one-and-a-half hours to read newly published papers or books in the field, as well as some scientific papers with broad interests. I also spend some time doing exercise.
I take weekends off, those are family time. My daughter is now in high school. She goes to boarding school and is only at home from Friday night to Sunday. We spend most of time talking to each other. She tells us what happened in the school, and we offer some suggestions if she asks. Her father and I cook the food she likes, and we try to make every day enjoyable.
6. What motivates you as a researcher?
I would like to say it is interest and curiosity. There are so many un-answered questions which I find fascinating. I feel that to be a researcher is lucky as I have always been working on something interesting and novel. Also, being a researcher, I get chances to know so many great scientists and talented students.
Professor Hu, thank you for your time!