Yixian Zheng (Carnegie Institution of Science): How I Became a Scientist

Uploaded by ibiomagazine on 13.03.2011

Hi, my name is Yixian Zheng.
Today I'll tell you a brief story about how I grew up
during cultural revolution, dreaming about becoming a writer,
but ended up doing science for the last 24 years.
I actually think my generation, even though we grew up during Cultural Revolution
was very fortunate. Well, I think that for those of you who don't
know Cultural Revolution, it was a pretty miserable time for the country,
for many people living in that era.
It continued for 20-30 years and there was a lot of disruption for the country.
But as a child growing up, I think it was actually quite enjoyable.
For example, we really didn't have many classes to take.
We...I remember studying Math, Chinese, and Political Science.
And really, Political Science constitutes studying Chairman Mao's books and
some other slogans and propaganda.
Because scholastic achievements were not really valued that much,
we really didn't have much pressure and also, there wasn't much after school activities.
We had a huge amount of time on our hands.
We got to really figure out ways to entertain ourselves.
My parents both taught in Chongqing University.
Chongqing is a city located in Sichuan Province.
And if you happen to like Chinese food you might have tasted
very spicy, lip numbing Sichuan cuisine. That's the city I grew up.
In those days, anybody who worked for University gets to live on campus.
And the...I remember the campus we had lived on was actually quite beautiful.
There were large fishponds that were used to raise fish for everybody as food.
There were also large meadows and very nice wooded areas.
The one edge of the campus, actually, is perched over a cliff overlooking Jialing River.
My apartments where my parents lived in and my school were
happened to be, actually, on opposite ends of the campus.
So every day I had to walk through the campus to go to school.
Every day after school, I and my friends would be roaming around the campus
climbing anything we could climb, checking out all the nooks and crannies of all the buildings.
We really loved checking out insects, catching them and studying them,
studying all the plants and flowers.
We loved to catch tadpoles, and take them home, put them in the bottle
and raise them to frog and let them go on the meadows.
I raised rabbits. I raised chickens. I also learned how to plant vegetables
and sold them to my parents to make some spending money,
but what I liked the most was to read novels.
Even though we didn't have a whole lot of variety in terms of novels.
We did get to read those translated novels from the old Russia or Soviet Union.
We were actually very lucky. Those novels were quite amazing and really outstanding literature.
I had, from those readings, I had always wanted to become a writer.
To write those exciting and very touching novels.
That life, that very idyllic life, suddenly came to an end
with the end of the Cultural Revolution.
Of course, it's great the Cultural Revolution has ended and everybody was really happy
especially our parents because our age group still had 2-3 years to make up some education gaps.
And another very important thing, that's really fortunate for us was that
we finally got the opportunity to go to university based on our test scores
instead of based on our birth class.
Suddenly, the daily, heavy studying homework and quizzes returned with vengeance
and without warning.
Suddenly, also, test scores become the most important thing.
And, you know, every test, your score is, along with everybody else in the class,
is posted on the wall and you get to see exactly where you ranked.
And the idea was to encourage everybody to study harder.
But it was actually very hard, very competitive
especially for my class group because all the kids are very bright
they came from the best...they came as the best of their class in schools throughout the city.
For me, I really never got used to that intensity of studying.
Also, I really was very attracted to read a lot of new novels that
had become available after Cultural Revolution.
So often times I would hide the novels in my drawer
to read them while I was supposed to be doing problem sets.
Luckily there was only about two years and
I managed to be able to stay in the middle of the pack in my class.
And also I managed to get into a university.
Even though my parents weren't particularly happy that I was never on the top of my class
or getting into a university...getting into the best university in China
such as Beijing or Tsinghua University.
I did get into a university so they didn't give me too much trouble.
After about 12 hours negotiation in terms of what I would major
my parents and I made a concession that I would major in Biology.
So I went to Sichuan University; majored in Biology.
But after the university, after 4 years, I again went against my parents’ wishes
to not continue my education in graduate school.
I went to work as a teaching assistant in the Southwestern Agricultural University which is
located in the rural parts of Chongqing.
My idea was, every day after work I would be able to have enough time
to really start writing.
But after a year, I realized actually, to write the stories
as good as those that had touched me so deeply was very, very difficult.
And since life was quite boring because the University is localized...located in
basically in the countryside. There wasn't much to do after work.
I got increasingly restless and really wanted to change my life.
And my parents really...my parents saw the opportunity to finally
help me to get rid of my dream of becoming a writer.
My dad told me "OK, you are frustrated with your writing.
Why don't you go abroad to study and to see the world?
Perhaps after your studying, after traveling and seeing the world
you'll have some interesting stories to write about."
I actually didn't like the idea about going abroad to study biology but
that was my only option.
I think what really got me going was to...the idea of going abroad
to see the world. So that's how I managed to come to America.
And I have been in this country for 24 years.
And I have been doing biological research ever since.
It is actually the logic of genetic screens that
attracted me to join Dr. Berl Oakley's lab at the University...at Ohio State University.
In Berl's lab I studied microtubules and cell division.
I continued the study of cell division in Dr. Bruce Albert's and Dr. Tim Mitchison's lab
at University of Berkeley in San Francisco where I have actually learned how to do Biochemistry,
how to use in vitro assays to study cell division.
So I have so far studied cell division for 24 years.
About 5 years ago our studies of cell division had inspired us
to initiate a new research angle in my lab.
That is, to try to understand whether cytoskeleton, such as microtubules
could influence chromatin organization within the nucleus
during the development and disease state.
This new research direction has been quite difficult
because we had to learn a lot of new techniques and
a lot of new areas of biology that weren't familiar to us.
And there was definitely times that I wondered whether I had made a huge career mistake
by not focusing on cell division, on studying something I knew how to study
that I had expertise.
But, after thinking back and forth, my conclusion had always been:
I would never be able to pass up the opportunity
to study something that really inspires me.
To me, doing research, especially biological research, is like making journeys
you can choose to take a well-traveled road
That kind of road is safer.
It will probably get you to your destination faster.
You'll be more productive.
But if you really get inspired, and you have some ideas,
those ideas could lead to bigger discoveries.
As scientists you have the opportunity to
choose the less traveled road to explore.
You may not be appreciated for quite a while
but your ideas, your inspiration should keep you going for quite a while
despite of the difficulties.
And if you in the end succeed to make some exciting discoveries,
you'll become the happiest and most content person in the world.
I think this is probably the reason why whenever you ask a scientist
whether they like their job, they will always tell you "This is an exciting career."
I think that's also the reason why I have been doing science for 25 years.