Li Fanghua, a 71-year-old renowned physicist and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, often finds it hard to make her subject comprehensible to the average person but easily wins over people with her graceful manners, humor, sincere modesty and wisdom.
The scientist, a senior professor at the academy's Institute of Physics, received one of this year's L'Oreal-UNESCO awards in late February in Paris. Another four women scientists, from Egypt, Turkey, Argentina and the United States, and working in the field of material sciences also received awards, given under the "For Women in Science" program established by the cosmetics company and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
A specialist in electron microscopy, Li's strenuous work has pushed back the limits of observation of crystalline structures through the elimination of interference. She is the first Chinese woman scientist to receive the L'Oreal-UNESCO award.
The L'Oreal-UNESCO program was set up in 1998 to improve the position of women in science by recognizing outstanding women researchers from the five continents who have contributed to scientific progress. Each award winner gets US$100,000, while young women scientists engaged in exemplary and promising projects each get a fellowship of US$20,000.
Wei Yu, former vice-minister of education, told a seminar on Chinese women in science held last weekend in Beijing: "Very often, these women's exceptional careers have opened up new and revolutionary ways of improving living conditions and well-being.
"Li Fanghua sets a good example for Chinese women working in the sciences. She very much deserves the honor."
Li's achievements did not come easily. But the modest scientist says she owes a lot to many other people for her personal success over the past decades.
"I owe so much to my mother, who told me that a woman must excel in a certain field of learning and secure financial independence before she can gain a respectable social status," Li recalled.
Her high-school teachers, including Zhang Lirong of Beijing Furen High School, helped Li develop an interest in astronomy, mathematics and physics. Her university tutors and older generations of scientists at the Institute of Physics, including Lu Xueshan, helped her lay a solid foundation for her future work in scientific research. The members of her team at the institute have helped her realize her novel ideas and theories, Li said.
Born in January 1932 in Hong Kong, Li spent her childhood in Hong Kong, Beijing and Guangzhou. She studied at Lingnan University and Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, and at Wuhan University in Central China's Hubei Province in the 1940s.
In 1956, she studied at Leningrad University in the former Soviet Union. Also that year, Li applied for an internship in the Institute of Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She has now spent most of her life there and was elected an academician in 1993.
Li's work was interrupted during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). But she said: "I did not give up thinking about my research work even at that time."
Fortunately, she got access to the institute's library in 1973 with the help of her colleagues, which enabled Li and her husband Fan Haifu to follow the latest developments in electron microscopy.
Li said: "Winning the UNESCO award is just a fraction of time compared with the long pursuit in which my colleagues and I have been engaged for years."
In the eyes of many, a scientist has to work long hours alone in the laboratory and sacrifice a great deal in his or her personal life and may remain unnoticed by the general public for many years.
Asked why she chose to be a scientist, Li replied: "It is mainly out of a strong interest for knowledge, not out of a keen desire for fame and honour.
"Just as many young people take pleasure in worshipping pop stars, I get pleasure from doing seemingly boring scientific research and finding out the truth about the world."
Advice for Successors
For young women who want to become scientists, Li advised: "Stick to the subject you are really attracted to and interested in and do not give up easily. Remember, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed on the path to scientific discovery and so you must put in enough effort. Always keep an open mind and learn from anyone who knows more in a certain field in which you are interested.
"Most importantly, you have to spend more time than others at your work. For instance, you have to sacrifice some of your personal enjoyment such as shopping for hours, sitting too long before the mirror to improve your make-up or hairstyle."
Li said she often thinks about her unfinished laboratory work when she is in the kitchen or buying food in a supermarket. "I am an incurable but happy workaholic woman scientist," Li joked.
In fact, Li has a wide range of hobbies, such as cooking, singing, designing clothes and t'ai chi, according to her colleagues.
Speaking of working conditions for scientists in China, especially for women scientists, Li recalled that things were hard in the early 1980s when she and two of her three adult children had to share a narrow dinner table to study, while her husband Fan Fuhai used the only small desk in their home.
Before that, in the 1960s, Li and her colleagues had to do heavy manual work besides their work in the laboratory due to a labour shortage. "Conditions for scientific research have improved greatly over the past two decades," she said.
However, the number of women scientists in China and worldwide has declined sharply, causing widespread concern.
Li said: "Traditional assumptions about gender roles have hindered women scientists from getting higher positions in scientific research organizations and thus made it difficult for them to fully utilize their talents, which are no inferior to those of male scientists."
Recent research on Chinese women in science -- carried out by the Chinese Association for Women Working in the Sciences a few months ago and quoted by L'Oreal -- showed that, during the late 1970s, more than one in three physics students at two of China's top universities was a woman. The number had plummeted to fewer than one in 10 by the late 1990s, a number far lower than in the West. This phenomenon is also true in many other fields of basic scientific research and many people say it may signal a renewed shift towards male domination in science.
The survey said that, during the late 1970s, women represented an average of 42 per cent of undergraduate physics majors at Peking University and 37 per cent at Nanjing University. In the late 1990s, however, the figure was a mere 9 per cent at Peking University and 8 per cent at Nanjing University.
In contrast, the percentage of women physics majors in the United States stood at only 9 per cent in 1978 but has climbed steadily to reach 21 per cent in 1999.
Li said: "It may take a long time before all visible and invisible obstacles in the way of women scientists' success are cleared away."
She added: "Under current circumstances, Chinese women scientists should learn to arrange their own time and energy more efficiently to balance their social roles as wives, mothers, daughters and scientific researchers."
(China Daily April 2, 2003)