Virus fighter Zhang Wenhong honored as outstanding educator

Release Date:2021-12-28Views:624

Shanghai’s 87th Press Conference on epidemic prevention and control took place on November 21 after 2 new local cases were found in Shanghai’s Pudong. Among the spokespersons sat Zhang Wenhong, Director of Infectious Diseases Department at Huashan Hospital, Fudan University. Zhang, who canceled his trip to Guangzhou for an international conference at the last minute, instead stayed up the whole night with the two other spokesperspons, wasting no time taking measures to examine the new cases.

Zhang Wenhong

“We are particularly alert to imported cases,” explained Zhang Wenhong. “If we can keep a step ahead of the virus, we will be rewarded with huge strategic advantage afterwards.”

For the whole year of 2020, Zhang Wenhong has busied himself leading Shanghai’s combat with COVID-19 as if in a race against time. His outspokenness on a wide range of issues concerning pandemic prevention and control has won him public favor and respect. Nevertheless, public attention on his identity as a virus fighter often obscures an equally important identity of him: a university professor.

Just the day before, he stayed up the night for Shanghai’s new cases, he was awarded the “Baosteel Outstanding Teacher Special Award”. This award is known to be granted to the most prominent teachers nationwide. Zhang won the highest votes among the candidates after the two rounds of voting.

In the recommendation letter for Zhang Wenhong, it reads: “Professor Zhang Wenhong has always regarded education as his paramount responsibility, actively exploring curriculum reform and teaching method. He has played a leading role in launching the online course “Infectious Diseases” produced by Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University, which acts as a pioneering example of teaching system that combines medical theory and clinical practice, as well as online and offline learning. During the pandemic, this course has gotten over 120,000 hits. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic also witnessed Professor Zhang taking the lead in fighting the virus on the front line. He has also stimulated students’ sense of responsibility and sense of mission by gathering them to popularize in various forms virus-related scientific knowledge.”

Today, Zhang Wenhong shares with us his understanding of the teaching profession.  

“Becoming a teacher was not my plan at first. ”

Q: What inspired you to become a teacher?

A: As a matter of fact, becoming a teacher was not my plan. My original plan was to be a doctor, just a doctor. But as my career unfolded itself, I was admitted to Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University (originally called Shanghai Medical University) and worked at its affiliated hospital after graduation. This decision results in the fact that I was automatically given another identity aside from a “doctor”, that is, a “teacher”.

The Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University is the first medical school founded by the Chinese and has become one of the medical schools that provide the highest level of medical teaching in China. Huashan Hospital, the affiliated hospital that I’m working for, has served as the site for all doctors-to-be in the Shanghai Medical College to learn and apply medical knowledge to clinical practice. It was like the cradle of doctors. So it was there, too, that I learned how to be a teacher and how to do research while in the meantime being a doctor.

I am very honored this time to receive the Baosteel Education Award, which is a foremost education award in China. I would also like to express my gratitude to the award jury.

Q: What’s your impression of your mentor Weng Xinhua?

A: Professor Weng Xinhua impressed me most with his concentration on his work. He has been conducting clinical work so assiduously and undauntedly that he had to put all other things aside. That is why he stands as the leading authority in this field, widely recognized as the “Holmes” in the field of infectious diseases for his expertise in diagnosing and treating difficult diseases. 

Despite the massive amount of information and countless matters we had to attend to every day, our way of doing work underwent slight changes. Though still, we emphasize clinical experience, we also pay particular attention to the application of new technologies to the clinical frontier. It will become meaningless if research results are not tested in reality. Therefore, we must apply the results of basic scientific research to clinical work and keep a close eye on whether new problems arise. Then we bring these new problems into discussion with medicine experts to uncover new phenomena or machanisms. Such feedback or interaction is essential to the continuous improvement of our clinical work.

Q: What’s special about infectious diseases education?

A: While most disciplines study organs, for example, cardiology studies the heart and blood vessels, rheumatology the immune system, hematology the blood system, and pneumology the entire respiratory tract. Yet the study of infectious diseases is different. You cannot find an organ called infection in your body.

We humans have always been living with microbes, but not every microbe can make us sick. Tens of millions of microorganisms have entered the human body from nature. Once the amount of them exceeds the normal range, diseases arise. These diseases may infect various parts of the human body, thus the study of infectious diseases is more complicated and general than those that focus on specific organs.

Because of the complicated nature of the discipline, many young medical students may initially have difficulty understanding what they are studying, but they will understand its rich nuances as they dig deeper. That sets high standards on our teaching. If our teaching is not good enough, students will only grasp the surface, taking for granted that it’s enough to focus on the infection of a certain organ. For instance, they may treat COVID-19 simply as a type of pneumonia, while in fact, there are a lot of factors to be considered.

“There are no bad students, only poor teachers.”

Q: After 20 years of career as a teacher, what qualities do you think a qualified university teacher, especially a medical school teacher, needs to acquire?

A: I feel increasingly strongly that more importance should be attached to teaching on the part of teachers than to learning on the part of students. There are no poor students, only bad teachers. Some teachers may blame the students’ tardiness and slow-mindedness for their unsatisfactory academic performance. That’s not fair. I believe that all Fudan students are brilliant. If we can’t even help such brilliant students become experts, it is ourselves who need to think about whether we have fulfilled our duties as teachers.

As teachers, we must treat students with the same level of seriousness as we treat our own children. However, the status quo is unfavourable for teachers to devote wholeheartedly to teaching. Teaching, as we can see, is often unpaid or little-paid, compared to what one could earn at specialist outpatient clinics and from consultations.

Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that teaching is closely related to the future of the entire university and the country. It is of vital importance to medical development. Our responsibility towards the future generation, and in this case, towards those young medical students, will be heavy but it is worth taking, just as important as our responsibility as doctors towards our patients.

To better our education, first and foremost, we should always put students first and educate them wholeheartedly. As teachers, we need to think about what we can do for students, rather than vice versa. Secondly, we must firmly believe that our students will always outdo us. We should have confidence in their ability. Last but not least, we must devote a lot of time to education, without which students can by no means learn and grow.

Q: What do you expect out of your students?

A: All I want is to help my students achieve their best, but I don’t have an answer for what the best student should be like and they should instead define what is the best student themselves.

Usually I am the one who offer help, but my students help me as well. I’m more experienced in this field for having been working on this subject for decades and been to many places, both at home and abroad, while my students are sometimes more innovative and incisive. I think learning and teaching complement each other but I’m not keen on shaping their personalities, for every students should have their own.

My only requirement on them though is that they should be able to work well with others. Medicine is unique in that it requires teamwork to accomplish a common task. So all my students must learn to collaborate with each other while having their own personalities. Cooperation, I believe, is the very weapon that China has wielded in the face of COVID-19. We defeated the pandemic through interdisciplinary collaboration under the strong leadership of our government. 

“Regular communication with students is as important as making ward rounds. ”

Q:You have been teaching undergraduates epidemiology for three years. Why do you attach such importance to undergraduate education? How did you give lessons during the quarantine?

A: Undergraduate education is a vital ground of medical development. No one is born to be a doctor. Without a solid foundation in medical knowledge, there won’t be much room for their career development. When students graduate from university, they will come across infectious diseases in whatever medical fields they work in. Meanwhile, the study on infectious diseases remains a significant section of internal medicine.  

In addition, I believe undergraduate education is the earliest stage of all-round medical education, where the knowledge imparted to the students will define how far they can go in the future. A word with their predecessors may exert influence on the rest of their lives. That’s why we pay much heed to the quality of undergraduate education. During the pandemic, we were the first to set up an online course on infectious diseases, which was taken by over 100,000 students. As far as I am concerned, there were a lot of non-medical students attending the course. It broke a record on the Chinese University MOOC ( We have spread the knowledge on infectious diseases in the broader society by dint of the pandemic.

Q: How much time do you spend with students every week? We’ve learned that you used to discuss research projects with your students at 6:30 every morning.

A: That’s true. But it was several years ago when I didn’t have so much work to do. To make sure my students can communicate with me for at least an hour every week, I used to talk to 2 or 3 postgraduates in turn from 6:30 to 8:00 every morning, as I was occupied at daytime by meetings, ward rounds, consultations and teaching.

These years my workload has spiked and I am getting older and older, so I spent less time talking to the students, probably several days a week, from 7:30 to 8:30. I ask them to update me their work and thoughts, which is as important as making ward rounds. For those who continue to work in my department after graduation, I try to talk to them every other week. Now under normalized COVID-19 control, we are gradually returning to face-to-face communication.

Q: As we know you have compiled more than 20 textbooks. That is very productive. How did you make it?

A: Actually I am the editor-in-chief of only 3 or 4 textbooks, because compiling books is indeed exhausting. However, our department plays a leading role in treating infectious diseases in our country, so when a related textbook is to be compiled, I will be invited to be an associate editor-in-chief.

We’ve also compiled a series of textbooks ourselves. In 2003, I assisted my mentor Weng Xinhua to publish China’s first medical book on SARS for professionals:The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. This year we published COVID-19: From Basics to Clinical Practice, the first medical book on COVID-19 for professionals in China and even in the world, in which we timely record the crucial events and our medical experience. Moreover, it has been translated into English, French and Spanish as well.

Part of the reason why I am able to publish so many papers and books is that we have a group of doctors and scientists who dedicate themselves to the study of infectious diseases. It’s quality medical education that has helped my work.

“My roles have beening changing all the time.”

Q: This year you have received many awards to commend your contribution as either a doctor or a teacher. How do you see the roles you play?

A: In fact, my roles have been changing all the time. Yesterday I was at a meeting held by National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) in Beijing\ discussing the mathematical models of the pandemic. I returned to Shanghai last night, and I will go to Beijing tonight because we will have a discussion on the relations between people, environment and infectious diseases at the environmental science division of NSFC tomorrow.

Today I have two meetings on education to attend. Education is my primary duty. We are holding two sessions in the morning and afternoon respectively to discuss the thesis proposals of our postgraduates. As the director of the Department of Internal Medicine, I am in charge of the thesis proposal defense. In the afternoon, there will be a conclusion meeting on the standardized training of resident physicians in Shanghai. This is of great significance for both the career development of young doctors and medical education reform, in which Shanghai has taken the lead in the country. Therefore, I must not miss such a conference. These are my tasks as an educator today. In fact, all my work today is about education and I am having a very busy day.

If you ask about my schedule this week, well I usually do outpatient visits and ward rounds on Mondays and Tuesdays. Teaching is arranged on Wednesdays and research Thursdays. Medical work is no longer all about medical treatment. Instead, it also involves medical education and research as essential parts. Medicine, teaching and research are all equally important to us.

We realize that we cannot have defeat the virus without medical researchers or excellent medics. All my present work, like publishing books and papers, giving speeches, popularizing science, etc., is in fact driven by education. These missions would be impossible without our outstanding medics and researchers. 

Q: What do you plan to do when the pandemic is over?

A: I don’t really have a detailed plan for the future, because I have a slew of work to do every day. I carried on with my daily work during the pandemic: providing outpatient service, making ward rounds, teaching students, doing research, offering consultations and attending meetings. The workload became heavier though. I was almost worn out during the pandemic. I realized my usual life, in comparison, was very pleasant. Every time I finished the rounds, I had about an hour to read, to have a cup of coffee or even take a nap, all of which are impossible during the pandemic. I really hope that this worldwide outbreak can come to an end soon.