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Wu Hong: determined scientist with relaxed attitude

Wu Hong, who always wears a lovely smile on her face, was announced to succeed Rao Yi as dean of the School of Life Sciences at Peking University (PKU).



Professor Wu at the School’s dean handover ceremony


In the past 16 years, Professor Wu, together with her colleagues, have taken great effort in understanding how a gene called PTEN suppresses tumors, which is frequently found missing in cancer cells. Some of Wu’s research findings have been published in the most prestigious scientific journals, such as Nature and Cell. Her papers have been cited numerous times by other scientists, further attesting the significance and impact of her discoveries.


Owing to her contribution to the field of molecular genetics of tumor, Professor Wu has won various awards granted by world leading associations and foundations. She is the first professor appointed to David Geffen Endowed Chair of Molecular Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. In 2010, she was elected as fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 


Wu Hong (left) and the reporter


“The ‘glass ceiling’ is everywhere. Don’t let being a woman stop you from following your dreams.”


Among all people working in the medical field, scientists make up a far smaller number than nurses and doctors, not to mention women scientists. As a scientist who has made huge breakthroughs in her field, Wu never yields to the disadvantages she encounters of being a woman.


“When I grew up, my mother and aunts were all doctors and scientists, so I never felt being a woman will prevent you from doing whatever you like to do. You should let your dream lead you. If you really try hard, you can reach it,” said Wu.


When Wu first arrived at Harvard Medical School, she was shocked to see that few women scientists were faculty members or at top positions at such a renowned institution.


But now, while still underrepresented in faculty positions, there are more and more women in leadership roles in science. “When I was doing my Ph. D. at Harvard, there was only one chair who was a woman; now the director of the Cancer Center and the dean of the School of Life Sciences at UCLA are both women.” said she.


The same is with China. Between 2003 and 2008, while working as a key project reviewer for the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Wu calculated that the proportion of women scientists receiving grants after their final oral defense was actually higher than that of their male counterparts. Wu seemed very happy, “I use this to justify that in China, women scientists are outstanding. We need to provide them with more opportunities.”


To encourage more women to devote to science, Wu once gave a talk to doctorate and postdoctoral students about her career path, and how to juggle among work, personal life, and maintaining a family. “I just love science. I do not think that I need special treatment just because I am a woman, although I do think the special needs of women scientists call for recognition. For example, women scientists need to be given an option of taking maternity leave when they have children,” said Wu.



“Doing research is enjoying life.”


“It is understandable that some students ‘escape’ from science. It is a personal choice,” Wu said so when she was asked about the hot issue of highly educated students giving up research as their career path.


However, from her point of view, the Chinese young generation now faces the issue of identity, “some of them want to find an easy path, and they want to enjoy life without working hard. For me, being a teacher and a research scientist is part of enjoying life. You encounter new thinking and new technologies everyday, which is challenging but enjoyable. I may age day by day but our students never get old–so you extend your life through your students.”


According to Professor Wu, the process of setting up a goal and going through all difficulties to fulfill it is true enjoyment, “Life has different flavors. The value of life is experience, is what you put yourself through.”


Wu shared her wonderful birthday experience exploring Macchu Picchu with her family. Over four days, she and her family backpacked up to the 15th century Inca city in Peru, climbing to a peak elevation of 4,200 meters. This was a big challenge for Wu. To prepare for that the climb, she and her husband went on weekly hikes with weighted packs for two months.


In the end, all this hard work paid off as Wu reached Macchu Picchu on her birthday and saw the beautiful creativity of the Incas. “You feel that you put yourself physically and mentally through that. And you enjoy at a level that I don’t think you would enjoy without this kind of struggle, exercise and exhaustion,” Wu pointed out.


For Wu, a researcher of natural science, it happens everyday that the exquisitely designed experiments do not always return satisfying results. She considers overcoming such frustrations just like the process of climbing a mountain. “Your goal is to reach the peak of a mountain, that’s for sure, and it can involve many small steps. You can view each step in the whole process as hard and repetitive, or you can take each step as a small achievement and enjoy the vista as you hike toward the peak. We all know that success is not guaranteed even if you put a lot of effort into a program. Sometimes you really need to have a relaxed attitude, and appreciate the journey as much as the destination.”



“By doing research, I can help more people.”


Like many others, Professor Wu also questioned the meaning of doing research when she finished her Ph.D. thesis. At that time, she did a calculation, and found out that she could see 15 patients per day if she chose to be a doctor. She hesitated, and wondered whether the value of her publications could amount to the actual help she could offer to patients.


But her experience as a barefoot doctor in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution enlightened her: “being a barefoot doctor, I see there is an honorable role doctors can play because people need your help and you are privileged to provide it. But I also realize how little I could actually do for patients. Treatment options are so limited. There are always diseases that cannot be treated.”


Wu has a unique understanding of Ph.D. and postdoctoral education. She would think of them as a process of learning how to identify critical issues and then use or develop research tools to solve the problem. She believes that while many of the breakthroughs or latest results from experiments may not be immediately applicable to medical treatments, they will bear fruit over time.


Now Wu has returned from the U.S. to help nurture intellectuals and at the same time further her research at PKU.


“China has reached a stage where science and new technology will drive the next step of its own development. The increase of funding allocated to scientific research per year is enormous, and it provides energetic young junior faculty in China a good start.”


Compared with their counterparts, junior faculty in the U.S. are under a lot of pressure to obtain research funding instead of focusing on research and teaching due to funding insufficiency. When discussing junior faculty and fledgling researchers at PKU, Wu is very proud: “they are really motivated to perform innovative research and eager to establish their own career. I really enjoy interacting with them.”


But China also has some disadvantages when it comes to science. “In the U.S., most labs have a relatively complete tier of senior scientists, postdoctoral fellows, Ph.D. students, undergraduates, and technicians, etc., which is very important not only to maintain a lab and pursue research topics, but also to provide a teaching environment for undergraduate students. In China, there is a lack of high quality postdoctoral fellows because our students prefer to finish their postdoctoral studies abroad,” Wu said.



“Dear students, PKU is your stepping-stone.”


When Professor Wu is asked to say a few words to PKU students, she smiled and said: “I think they should be proud of themselves.”


According to her, all students admitted to PKU for their excellence do not have to take this as their burden, but a privilege and a stepping-stone on their way to fulfill their dreams. “Too much entitlement will only bring endless frustrations.”


She suggested that PKU students should figure out what they want to do and what they are capable to do for their future career. “You should set up a goal on your own and then fight for it, rather than live a life first designed by your parents, then your teacher, or your mentor. Here at PKU, you have some of the most amazing facilities and teachers to support you.”


“I sometimes envy the students nowadays. And I think that I might have done more and better–if I had the opportunity to get all the resources you now possess,” she laughed.



Reported by: Li Chiyang

Edited by: Arthars