Song Tan

Born: June 5, 1963 | London, GB

Song Tan was born in London, England, and lived in Singapore and the US during his childhood. He remembers always being interested in science, especially the chemical elements. He was in an honors program in high school that allowed students to work in university labs around Miami. He worked in Richard Doepker's lab at the University of Miami, where he analyzed the products of burning plastic. Tan took fourth place in the Westinghouse Talent Search; he used his scholarship at Cornell University, which had the added attraction of a synchrotron. He majored in physics, but with a concentration in biochemistry. At the University of Cambridge, he worked with Trevor Lamb and Timothy Richmond. Tan moved with Richmond to Zürich, Switzerland. Upon finishing his work with Richmond, Tan accepted an assistant professorship at Penn State University. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0657
No. of pages: 94
Minutes: 220

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso
19 and 20 November 2008
Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Song Tan was born in London, England; he has one brother and one half brother. His father was from Singapore, his mother from China. When Tan was five the family moved to Singapore, where they lived for ten years before settling in Miami, Florida. Tan's father was a civil engineer; his mother was in banking and in wholesale distribution; she went back to banking when they moved to the United States. Tan remembers always being interested in science, especially the chemical elements. He loved to read, finding the Childcraft How and Why Library particularly fascinating. In Singapore Tan attended the Anglo-Chinese School. He was in an honors program in his high school in Florida that allowed students to work in university labs around Miami; Tan went to the University of Miami. He worked in Richard Doepker's lab, where he analyzed the products of burning plastic (pyrolysis of polystyrene). Tan took fourth place in the Westinghouse Talent Search; he used his scholarship at Cornell University, which had the added attraction of a synchrotron. Still interested in particle physics, he became increasingly intrigued by genetic engineering. He majored in physics, but with a concentration in biochemistry. He worked in Aaron Lewis's lab, where he purified bacteriorhodopsin and studied photoreceptors. He also worked at the synchrotron with David Cassel. Tan was awarded both the Churchill and the Marshall Scholarships; he declined the Churchill and accepted the Marshall, matriculating into the University of Cambridge, which initially assigned him to Trevor Lamb's lab at the University of Cambridge. Lamb recommended him to Timothy Richmond at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where he worked on protein-DNA interactions of yeast mating-type transcription factors. Tan moved with Richmond to Zürich, Switzerland, to the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH). There he finished his PhD and continued his work, first as a postdoc and then as Oberassistent, or project leader. Throughout and after his graduate career Tan had the opportunity to meet many famous scientists at LMB and ETH, including Paul Sigler at a synchrotron in Hamburg, Germany. At that meeting, the Richmond and Sigler groups realized they were both working to determine the crystal structure of TFIIA and TBP transcription factors with DNA; the two groups ended up publishing in the same week. Upon finishing his work with Richmond, Tan accepted an assistant professorship at Penn State University. At the end of the interview, Tan discusses the approaches he brought with him from Richmond's lab; he talks about his enjoyment of teaching and his teaching methods; he compares students at Penn State with those at other schools; and he discusses politics and language. Tan also describes the process of obtaining the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award and the annual meetings. The interview concludes with his thoughts on funding in general and his funding in particular; and with thanks to his parents for providing him with such fine opportunities. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1985 Cornell University BA Physics
1989 University of Cambridge PhD Molecular Biology

Professional Experience

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1989 to 1992
Postdoctorate, under Timothy J. Richmond
1992 to 1998
Oberassistent (Project Leader), under Timothy J. Richmond

Pennsylvania State University

1998 to 2004
Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
2004 to 2016
Associate Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1981

Westinghouse Science Talent Search, fourth place

1985

Cornell University Presidential Scholar

1985

Phi Beta Kappa

1985

Churchill Scholarship (declined)

1985 to 1989

US National Science Foundation Fellowship

1985 to 1987

Marshall Scholarship

2001 to 2005

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences Award

2002

Pennsylvania State Biochemistry and Moelcular Biology Tershak Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in London, England. Moves to Singapore. Family background. Parents and siblings. Anglo-Chinese School. How and Why Library. Early interest in science. Moves to Miami Florida. Culture shock. High-school honors program. Working in Richard Doepker's lab at University of Miami.

College Years
26

Wanted to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Westinghouse Talent Search offered scholarship. Decides to attend Cornell University. Synchrotron at Cornell. Working in Aaron Lewis's lab, purifying bacteriorhodopsin. Physics major with biochemistry concentration. Synchrotron work with David Cassel. Working on actin filaments in rat eyes in Lewis's lab.

Graduate School Years
38

Accepted into biophysics program at Harvard University. Awarded Marshall Scholarship to study in England. Declines Churchill scholarship. Decides to defer Harvard and attend University of Cambridge. Assigned to Trevor Lamb's lab. Timothy Richmond's lab in Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. Many famous scientists there. Works on MATα1. Richmond accepts position at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich, Switzerland. Tan uses National Science Foundation grant to follow Richmond. Spends eleven years there.

Faculty Years
68

Accepts position at Penn State University. Large number of gene regulators, but no structuralists. Projects he brought with him. Discusses Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences award and meetings. Lack of crystals. Working with chromatin enzymes and nucleosome.

General Thoughts
79

Thanks parents for opportunities they provided by moving to United States. Discusses enjoyment of teaching; teaching methods. Students at Penn State University. Students in his lab. Influence of language; politics and language. Funding in general and his in particular.

Index
91

About the Interviewer

David J. Caruso

David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and editor for the Oral History Review. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds an annual training institute that focuses on conducting interviews with scientists and engineers, he consults on various oral history projects, like at the San Diego Technology Archives, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.  His current research interests are the discipline formation of biomedical science in 20th-century America and the organizational structures that have contributed to such formation.