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British professor forges a new path through chemistry research and education in China
"Forge your own path, make a different way and have the will to change"
By Tao Zihui  ·  2021-02-01  ·   Source: NO.5 FEBRUARY 4, 2021
David Evans gives chemistry experiment instructions to students at a primary school in Beijing on October 26, 2019 (COURTESY PHOTO)

When David Evans, a British chemistry professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, started his day on January 15, the temperature outside was minus 10 degrees Celsius, a teeth-chattering day in Beijing. After stopping and chatting with one of his students, Evans stepped into the Chemistry Outreach Center in the university, a spacious room with eight laboratory tables. A wide range of chemical reagents and test tubes were placed on the shelves.

It was a normal working day for him, a routine which he has stuck to for 25 years. After graduating from the University of Oxford with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in chemistry, Evans worked at Exeter University for 11 years before moving to China in 1996.

"'You have been in China for so long, but I can't stand it here,' some foreigners complain to me," Evans said, and he would always ask them to think about whether they had come up against the same problem in their home country before heaping the blame on China.

"Most of the time you will have done so! So it depends on your own attitude," Evans said. "I'm not one who is always immersed in the past. I care more about the present and the future. However, what I know is that I would regret not coming to China," he told Beijing Review.

Science idol for the young

In the last few years, the focus of his work has switched from research to outreach, going to primary schools and secondary schools, working with young children and trying to get them fired up about chemistry.

"If I give lectures at a school or science museum every day, I can teach a lot of students. But China is so big and it has so many students. That would actually not be very efficient," Evans said.

He noted that offline lectures face many bottlenecks, as many students are far away from a science museum or any sort of science facilities. He intends to use short videos as a way to expand his outreach more efficiently.

"When my assistant Suo Lele returned to his hometown in Shandong Province for the Spring Festival in 2018, his friends and families told him they spent many hours each day watching short videos on Kuaishou, [a short video platform in China]. After the holiday, he suggested we should put some videos of chemical experiments on that platform," Evans said. Both of them were not sure how far they could go then.

"Suo said probably no one will watch them. I said maybe, but as a scientist we should prove things in a scientific way," Evans recalled. "After doing so we found that quite a few people watched them."

Within two years, Evans has more than 8 million followers waiting for his updates. Over 40 percent of his fans are young people, and a quarter of them are teenagers. His most popular video has 15 million views, and many of his videos have been viewed millions of times.

Evans usually goes to small towns and cities or the countryside, where educational resources are highly in demand, to do offline lectures; Kuaishou with more than 80 percent of its users from those areas enormously expand his reach to the desired target audience. "It is an open platform for everybody, if you have a mobile phone and a signal," he said.

He hopes that youngsters can be attracted by some simple science ideas and that their interest will keep growing. To help people expand their way of thinking and prove things in a scientific way is much more important in an era of information overload.

"One website will tell you that people can live longer by drinking six cups of coffee every day, while another will tell you that doing so increases your risk of getting cancer. Which one is telling the truth?" Evans said. "You can't trust the content of a website just because of its fancy design. You should think about the problem in a scientific way, and ask, where is your evidence?"

Driven by passion

Besides chemistry, for Evans China was the other mysterious new world when he was young. Beijing Review became the only news source he could find to follow the country's updates in the 1970s.

"Before the policies of reform and opening up, there were very few foreign journalists in China, so we had very little news and information about China. It was such a big country, but it appeared to be like a black hole," he said.

He first came to China in 1987, a decade before he finally decided to work and live in the country in 1996. During the years in between, he had seen the transformative changes in the country, and thinks that the future of China should not be underestimated. "I myself would not have decided to work here if I came to China for the first time in 1996. China was completely different from Britain at the time. Things have changed a lot in 30 years," Evans said.

The British scientist's decision to stay in China was not understood by his British colleagues, who usually chose to do research in developed countries. "Whether for a person or for a country, there are few opportunities if you are always following others," he said. "Forge your own path, make a different way and have the will to change."

"People always think the British are fairly conservative, but I'm not. I like changes," Evans said.

Evans did briefly consider leaving China once. More than 10 years ago, the academy of sciences in Viet Nam invited him to work there and use his experience in rising China.

"Although I thought about it for a while, I decided to stay in China," he said.

When the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic first hit China, those in Britain asking Evans to leave China were shocked by his insistence on staying, as a British minister suggested all Britons get out of China by whatever means possible. Living on campus and being taken well care of, he never doubted the fact that China would fight off the virus.

"I was in Beijing 18 years ago during the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic. I saw how China was able to mobilize all of its resources to overcome the epidemic. So I was confident that, faced with COVID-19, they would be equally successful, as it seems that indeed they have," he said. 

(Print Edition Title: Diving Into the Unknown)

Copyedited by Sean Connolly

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