Philipp Kapranov plays a leading role with the biological research team at Huaqiao University in Xiamen, Fujian province. [Photo provided to China Daily]
You probably don't know Philipp Kapranov, but he knows a lot about what's inside you.
The American genomic scientist has made a particular study of RNAs, a class of macromolecules known as nucleic acids. These biopolymers are essential to all forms of life－best-known for storing and transmitting hereditary data by synthesizing proteins. But Kapranov is fascinated by what the "non-coding" RNA molecules do, and their potential to uncover new opportunities in areas like fighting disease.
Kapranov says it's his nature to explore new ideas for discoveries and take on new challenges. That nature brought him to China.
"China has so many resources. I realized there is also a desire for growth and scientific discoveries here," says Kapranov, 43. "I wanted to bring my scientific seeds and let them grow here."
Kapranov has played a leading role with the biological research and scientific team at Huaqiao University, located in Xiamen in Fujian province, after he became a professor there in 2014.
Born and raised in Kiev, in today's Ukraine, Kapranov had a strong interest in biology when he was young. He later went to study in the United States and got his PhD in genetics from Michigan State University in 2000.
Before coming to China, he lived in the US for more than two decades and had done research for a private nonprofit research institute and high-tech companies located in California's Silicon Valley and Boston area.
His primary research interests include systems biology and genomics. In the past few years, he has been involved in the mapping of transcribed regions in the human genome.
His research shed light into the functions and importance of the genome's non-coding RNAs－those RNA molecules that are not translated into proteins.
"Discovering what these non-coding RNAs are doing has been the passion and goal of my life," Kapranov says. "If the cell is really using them for something, then there is a lot of new opportunity for us, such as finding those variants that cause diseases."
Before, just the protein-coding elements, which accounted for less than 2 percent of the genome, were thought useful, and the remaining 98 percent used to be dismissed by many as "junk DNAs".
Kapranov's work has impacted scientists' understanding of the genomic organization and architecture, while redefining the importance of the "junk DNAs" as functional RNAs that play a big role in epigenetic regulation of gene expression, including diverse cellular processes that do not involve changes in DNA sequence.
In 2010, his discovery was chosen as one of the 10 top scientific findings of the previous decade by Science magazine, and he has published his research results in many top international science journals such as Science, Nature and Cell.
While he was in the US, Kapranov's Chinese research partner suggested that he apply to a Chinese university as part of the central government's One Thousand Foreign Experts project. He felt that a great deal of scientific progress will happen in China and applied for the One Thousand Talents program from Huaqiao University, which offered good working environment and was very supportive of his research.
Kapranov admits that he didn't know much about the country before he arrived.
With support from the university authorities, he was able to build a lab and establish the university's institute of genomics, where he is now director.
In 2014, his research program was successfully included in the Thousand Talent Plan, one of the country's key projects to promote technology innovation.
His lab has become the earliest place in China to have equipment that allows them to sequence single molecules of DNA and RNA. He is mentoring more than 10 master's students working in his lab.
"The challenges are mostly scientific. It's always hard to make discoveries in science, especially when you are at the forefront of a competitive field," he explains.
Kapranov has been active in some international research collaborations in his field, and has worked to involve the university and the province in exchange activities.
Kapranov has spent most of his past three years in Xiamen. He has married Zhuang Lei, a Fujian native, and has dedicated his limited spare time to learning Chinese language.
Citing China's fast progress and its scientific achievements, like its launching of the world's first quantum satellite last August, Kapranov is optimistic about the country's future. He says he plans to stay in China for the long term.
"I love it there."