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[Academician mien] Exploring in the “Nonlinear World” --- An interview on Professor Qi Ouyang

 

Chinese Academy of Sciences published the list of newly elected academicians on December 12th, 2013. Five professors at Peking University have received the honor, and Professor Qi Ouyang, a distinguished Yangtze River professor of the in the Institute of Condensed Matter, School of Physics, is one of the five people. From Turing Patten to Synthetic Biology, Professor Qi Ouyang recalled his research experience and academic achievements.

 

 Exploration of Patten Formation

 Qi Ouyang graduated from Tsinghua University and got his bachelor degree in Physical Chemistry and analytical chemistry in 1982. He went further study at Université Bordeaux I, France from 1983 to 1989 and finally obtained the doctor degree in Physical Chemistry. 1989, he started his research at University of Texas at Austin, and then employed by the America research center of NEC Corporation in 1996.

 

“My research was oriented to Turing Pattern and spiral wave at the very beginning when I was abroad”. Said Qi Ouyang, “some related parts of this field have still been study today.” “Turing Patten was totally a postulation sugested by Turing in 1952. In a reaction diffusion system, it will form some ordered pattern, like zebra stripes or leopard spots, if the system has been pulled far away from equilibrium state, which is called self-organization. What is the underlying mechanism? We explored this mechanism by doing experiments.”

“The spiral wave in reaction diffusion system is another self-organization behavior. Turing Pattern does not vary by time, but the spiral wave does. In addition, it is a sort of wave which is ordered in space and time. Spiral wave has relative poor stability, and it will result in disorder once lose the stability. We call the disordered state as spatiotemporal chaos or spiral wave turbulence. What we studied was why a system will undergo the transformation from order to disorder state and the underlying mechanism.”

 

The study of spiral wave was highly related to the treatment of heart disease. “Given that the close relation between death of heart fibrillation and stability loss of spiral wave, it will bring great benefits to treat arrhythmia and heart fibrillation if we know the dynamics property of spiral wave.” His research group won the second National prize for science in 2009 for the achievement “Nonlinear dynamics analyses on mechanisms of heart fibrillation and cell cycle regulation in system biology”.

 

Multiple research interests based on Physics

1998, Qi Ouyang came back to China and worked as a distinguished professor of Yangze River at Peking University. “Currently my research interests are focused on Systems biology, Synthetic biology and Quantitative Biology, which all have nonlinear dynamics at the core.” Said professor Ouyang,” The field of systems biology I concerned is about applying nonlinear dynamics in biological system. We regard the biological process as a dynamic system and the major part is its regulatory network. The network can be translated to a series of complex nonlinear dynamical equations if we take the network node as dynamical variables. Our goal in theoretical research is to figure out the sophisticated relation contained in network topology, dynamical property and the biological function governed by them.”

 

“We also do some experiments in systems biology under the guide of theoretical prediction. One of typical work is the study of the cell cycle in budding yeast.” With the development of Biological technology, synthetic biology has been promoted to a new growth stage. “Actually, the word “Synthetic Biology” has appeared a few decades age. However, at that time we could just have a superficial understanding of it with the limitation of quantitative method. In recent years, on one hand biology has gone deeply to quantitative analysis, on the other hand Human Genome Project and Proteomics have gone through the confused initiation into the thriving blossom, which enable us to understand the cell or biological process systematically. Thus synthetic biology re-flourished virtually.” Qi Ouyang said.

 

So what is synthetic biology? “From the engineering point of view, synthesis is to create a new organism to serve us. During the process of building and design, we will also get a deeper understanding of how cell work and function, like gene expression and protein translation.”

Professor Ouyang introduced his recent research in synthetic biology to the reporter. “As we know, Pavlov has proved the conditioned reflex of dogs. We want to design a regulatory network to achieve the conditioned reflex in Escherichia coli, which originally does not have this function. The circuit seems useless, but we do learn a lot from the exploration.”

 

 

To motivate the students’ passion on thermodynamics

Professor Qi Ouyang also does some teaching work in addition to research. ”One of my classes is thermodynamics for the freshman, and the other is nonlinear dynamics for senior students and graduate students.” “My class is very strict!” laughed the professor. “Since it is hard to understand the thermodynamic concepts, I have spent a lot of time to prepare the lessons. The passion of study should be based on the hard work of both of us, me and the students.”

 

 

Academician is just an honor

 

People used to go to extremes on academician. Some stick to think academician as the privileged or corrupt ones, but it’s absolutely not the case. I know many academicians, like our former principal Jiaer Chen, our respected academician Zizhao Gan, Yingchang Yang, Guogang Qin. They are all working dependably and with great enthusiasm. While some others prefer to raise the status of academician to an exceeding high level, even take them as immortal. Of course it is also not right. These days, people’s perceptions of academician have return to an objective track.”

“Academician is just an honor.” said Qi Ouyang, “It is only an affirmation and encouragement to your previous achievements, and has nothing to do with your future work. Also it doesn’t mean that you have big skills.”