Tian Xu

Born: June 2, 1962 | Jiaxing City, CN

Tian Xu was born in Jiaxing City. During the Cultural Revolution, his parents endured "reeducation," the family moved to a shack, and Xu's schooling was negatively impacted. He took up Go to keep himself challenged mentally. After the Cultural Revolution, Xu studied genetics at Fudan University. When a famous mathematician, Shiing-Shen Chern, returned to Xu's hometown from Berkeley, Xu resolved to go to the United States. He went to Yale University, where he entered Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas's lab. Xu resisted learning English until he entered Gerald Rubin's laboratory at University of California, Berkeley. He later became a principal investigator at Yale. He discusses his current research on cancer and the LATS and DRPLA genes, motivation for pursuing science, and the advantages and disadvantages of being a principal investigator. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0531
No. of pages: 91
Minutes: 450

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
11-13 July 2000
Yale University Medical School, New Haven, Connecticut

Abstract of Interview

Tian Xu was born in Jiaxing City in Zhejiang Province in China, the older of two children. His father, who was from a wealthy family, was a dean; his mother began work in a silk factory and rose to become a CEO until the Cultural Revolution sent her to a labor camp. The Cultural Revolution caused the whole family much suffering: his parents had to endure "reeducation"; the family had to move to a shack; and Xu's schooling was negatively impacted (he took up the game of Go as a means of keeping himself challenged mentally). He felt that his schooling had been inadequate, but with his family's support he prepared himself for the national examination to enter college; this examination was reinstituted after the end of the Cultural Revolution. Xu decided to major in genetics at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and he studied under C. C. Tan. When a famous mathematician, Shiing-Shen Chern, returned to Xu's hometown from University of California, Berkeley, Xu resolved to go to the United States, initially enrolling in the City College of New York. His first impressions of New York City were not good, and so he decided to leave, being accepted at Yale University where he entered Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas's lab. Though he had left China planning to return, he ultimately decided to remain in the United States, with the exception that he returned to China to marry Wan Yu, whom he had met when he was a student at Fudan. Xu resisted learning English until he was in Gerald Rubin's laboratory at University of California, Berkeley; he had gone there at Artavanis-Tsakonas' instigation, as the lab was the best in Xu's field. Xu found the mentoring and lab-management styles of Artavanis-Tsakonas and Rubin very different. He accepted a principal investigator position at Yale and strove to overcome his difficulties in writing English. At Yale he helped develop a successful introductory genetics course as he considered it very important to spur student interest in science. Xu concludes the interview talking about his interest in spending a sabbatical in the Amazon, studying ants, in which he has always been interested, after which he discusses his leisure activities, which revolve primarily around spending time with his daughters and his wife. He also talks about patents and intellectual property; wanting to conduct innovative research projects; ethical questions in science, especially issues surrounding cloning; the need for both collaboration and competition in science (he himself collaborates with Gabriel G. Haddad on locating genes responsible for hypoxia resistance); and issues of ethnicity and gender in American science. The interview ends with an explanation of his current research on cancer and the LATS and DRPLA genes; his motivation for pursuing science; the advantages and disadvantages of being a principal investigator; and an evaluation of his professional and personal goals.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1982 Fudan University BA Genetics
1987 Yale University MS Biology
1990 Yale University PhD Developmental Biology

Professional Experience

University of California, Berkeley

1990 to 1993
Postdoctoral Fellow

Yale University

1993 to 1998
Assistant Professor of Genetics
1997
Assistant Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
1998
Associate Professor of Genetics

Honors

Year(s) Award
1990 to 1993

Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship

1995 to 2000

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

1997

Howard Hughes Investigator Award

Table of Contents

Childhood, College, and Graduate School
1

Confusion over birthdate. Family background. Chinese Cultural Revolution. Takes up the game of Go. National examination to enter college. Importance of family support. Early schooling. Reasons for choosing to major in genetics. Studies under C. C. Tan. First years of college at Fudan University. Teachers and fellow students' excitement in teaching and being taught. Possibility ofstudying abroad. Chern Shiing-Shen. Resolve to come to the United States. Diminishing importance of lineage and class differences in Chinese society. First impressions of New York City. Decides to leave City College of New York to pursue cutting-edge science elsewhere. Meets Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas at Yale University. Joins the graduate program at Yale.

Coming to the United States and Postdoctoral Faculty Years
31

Social life in China. Decision to remain in the United States. Religion. Meets and marries his wife, Wan Yu. Enters the Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas laboratory. Mentoring style of Artavanis-Tsakonas. Learning English. Gerald M. Rubin laboratory at University of California, Berkeley. Different mentoring styles of Artavanis-Tsakonas and Rubin. Decides to accept a principal investigator position at Yale. Writing English. Merits of the grant-funding process in the United States. Grant-writing process. Helps develop a successful introductory genetics course. Importance of spurring student interest in science. Laboratory management style. Administrative responsibilities. Meaning of tenure at Yale. Typical workday.

Current Research and Thoughts on Science
60

Interest in antsLeisure activities. Desire to conduct innovative research projects. Collaboration and competition. Collaborates with Gabriel G. Haddad on locating genes responsible for hypoxia resistance. Patents and intellectual property. Issues surrounding cloning. American science. Current research on cancer and the LATS and DRPLA genes. Motivation for pursuing science. Professional and personal goals.

Index
89

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen