Chinese student off to strong start in new URI College of Pharmacy program

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Joint program with top Chinese university could lead to master’s degree in 5 years

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 23, 2015 – Zhen Xu personifies the word pioneer, having traveled thousands of miles from her home in China. She is exploring an entirely new culture, and she is the first from her country to enroll in a new program at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy.

Xu is the first person from the Tongji Medical College, part of the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), to enroll in the joint 3-plus-2 program offered by the university in China and URI. The program allows Chinese students at Huazhong to complete three years of the school’s bachelor’s program in pharmacy there, then come to URI to finish the four-year degree and begin study toward a master’s degree immediately thereafter. The program gives students the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in five years.

After three-and-half years at Tongji Medical College, Xu spent the spring semester of 2015 at URI where she completed her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, with the degree having been awarded by Huazhong University in June.

She started her pursuit of a master’s degree in pharmaceutical science this summer at URI.

For the next year, the 21-year-old Xu will be working with Bingfang Yan, professor of pharmacology and toxicology in URI’s College of Pharmacy and chair of its Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. His research on genetic and environmental factors that regulate the expression of genes in drug response and cancer development has earned him international acclaim.

“Zhen is an outstanding student,” Yan said. “This is part of the College of Pharmacy’s global initiative through which we want to attract top students from HUST and send our best students there. HUST is considered the Caltech of China.

“We are looking for students ranked in the top 25 percent of their class. They also have to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam for English proficiency and take the Graduate Record Exam. Zhen scored very high on each exam.”

Xu, who is already well established at URI, is studying the pregnane X receptor, which Yan called a “master” gene regulator that clears toxins and drugs from the body. The receptor is over-activated in many diseases and can negate the effectiveness of chemotherapy in cancer treatment.

“This receptor could be a key factor in curing some devastating disease conditions such as chemo-resistance, which makes Zhen’s work in my lab very important,” Yan said.

“I really enjoy working in Dr. Yan’s lab, and several of my fellow students were very helpful during my first semester here,” said Xu, who is living in URI’s Graduate Village.

Her adjustment must have been smooth because she earned A’s in all of her URI classes. But why come to URI if you are already well established at your university in China?

“When we are young, we should go abroad to broaden our horizons,” Xu said. “I have already made good American friends.”

But she also stays in touch with her family, video-conferencing each night, despite the 12-hour time difference.

Yan said he expects even more students like Xu to enroll in URI’s 3-plus-2 program through the bachelor of science degree in pharmaceutical science. The program is young but has been one of the fastest growing programs at URI.

“We could not have done better than Zhen as our first student in the program,” Yan said. “She is a gifted student and researcher, and she has embraced URI fully, including her peers and faculty members.”

Zhen Xu works in the lab of Bingfang Yan, URI professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Pharmacy and chair of its Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Zhen Xu takes a break from her research outside URI’s College of Pharmacy.

URI photos by Nora Lewis.