In less polarized times, Dr. Shi was a symbol of China’s scientific progress, at the forefront of research into emerging viruses.
She led expeditions into caves to collect samples from bats and guano, to learn how viruses jump from animals to humans. In 2019, she was among 109 scientists elected to the American Academy of Microbiology for her contributions to the field.
“She’s a stellar scientist — extremely careful, with a rigorous work ethic,” said Dr. Robert C. Gallo, director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology employs nearly 300 people and is home to one of only two Chinese labs that have been given the highest security designation, Biosafety Level 4. Dr. Shi leads the institute’s work on emerging infectious diseases, and over the years, her group has collected over 10,000 bat samples from around China.
Under China’s centralized approach to scientific research, the institute answers to the Communist Party, which wants scientists to serve national goals. “Science has no borders, but scientists have a motherland,” Xi Jinping, the country’s leader, said in a speech to scientists last year.
Dr. Shi herself, though, does not belong to the Communist Party, according to official Chinese media reports, which is unusual for state employees of her status. She built her career at the institute, starting as a research assistant in 1990 and working her way up the ranks.
Dr. Shi, 57, obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Montpellier in France in 2000 and started studying bats in 2004 after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed more than 700 people around the world. In 2011, she made a breakthrough when she found bats in a cave in southwestern China that carried coronaviruses that were similar to the virus that causes SARS.