Chinese university inaugurates namesake institute for USC Nobel laureate

The sign plaque for the Warshel Institute of Computational Biology is unveiled at the institute’s inauguration ceremony at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Photo/Matthew Colopy)

On April 10, Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel was in Shenzhen, China, the guest of honor at the inauguration of a new research institute that bears his name. The Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen, a prestigious university in a major biotech city, is now home to the Arieh Warshel Institute of Computational Biology.

Warshel, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the holder of the Dana and David Dornsife Chair in Chemistry, has been involved with the university since 2014, spending about one week a year there giving public lectures and research presentations.

In February, university officials contacted Warshel about a generous funding opportunity allowing for the establishment of a Nobel laureate-led research center there. With the help of $20 million from the local government, they proposed opening an institute in his name and building an exceptional team in an area of strategic research.

Nobel laureate Arieh Warshel gives the opening speech at the April 10 inauguration. (Photo/Matthew Colopy)

“I am very honored to have an institute in my name,” Warshel said. “My hope is that the institute will attract good people from both China and around the world who will further the research in computational biology.”

The institute will spearhead investigations in computational biology that will support Warshel’s research vision. This will also include hosting international workshops and developing  distinguished visitor and postdoctoral programs in an effort to  increase the international visibility of the institute and the university, which is located in one of China’s largest and wealthiest cities.

Shenzhen is a city of almost 20 million people where the average age is less than 30, Warshel said. There are considerable municipal resources, and the university is eager to support the expansion of scientific research.

As the institute’s director, Warshel will spend about one week twice a year in Shenzhen delivering the opening academic year lecture, conducting a workshop or seminar, and reviewing the institute’s overall direction and progress.

Jenn Huang, who has been appointed as the deputy director, will guide the administration of the institute. Huang is a former USC Dornsife Ph.D. student who studied under Warshel. He and Warshel have chosen two main research directions: bioinformatics, which is Huang’s area of expertise, and computer-aided enzyme and drug design.

Chinese University of Hong Kong President Yangsheng Xu presents Warshel, left, with his scroll portrait. (Photo/Matthew Colopy)

“I have the vision that this institute of computational biology would serve as a platform to attract top-class researchers worldwide to join and contribute in this arena,” Warshel said at the inauguration ceremony. “It will also lead to key international collaborations and become a multidisciplinary education hub to nurture young computation biologists.”

Ideally, the institute will yield high-quality candidates for doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers who may one day collaborate between the the institute in Shenzhen and Warshel’s USC Multiscale Simulations Lab at USC.

A pioneer in computational studies on functional properties of biological molecules, Warshel received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus. Warshel and his colleagues have been recently involved in computational enzyme design and in the elucidation of the  molecular origin of the vectorial action of molecular machines.

A member of the National Academy of Science and an honorary member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), Warshel has received numerous awards, including the American Chemical Society’s Tolman Medal, the RSC’s Soft Matter and Biophysical Chemistry Award, and the Biophysical Society’s Founders Award. He is also the recipient of several honorary degrees from prestigious universities including the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Upssala University in Sweden, Lodz University of Technology in Poland, and Bar-Ilan University in Israel. On June 8, Warshel will travel to Hong Kong to receive the Honorary Fellowship Award of the of Asian College of Knowledge Management.

By Laura Paisley