Zhaohui Xu

Born: January 18, 1967 | Suzhou, CN
Photograph of Zhaohui Xu

Zhaohui Xu was born in Suzhou, China. Because the Cultural Revolution dictated a child's future occupation, education options were limited, and there were few books, no movies, no television. Soon things began to change, and in junior high school Xu began science classes. He attended University of Science and Technology of China for its broader science base. Xu loved the excitement of discovery to be found in basic science, but because Chinese research facilities were so limited, he knew he wanted to go to graduate school elsewhere, eventually attending University of Minnesota. After his PhD and six years in Paul Sigler's lab at Yale, he accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Michigan. There, he works on crystal structure of the trigger factor, crystal structure of the cytosolic chaperones GroEL and GroES, and SecA and SecB.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0632
No. of pages: 82
Minutes: 198

Interview Sessions

David J. Caruso
20-21 October 2008
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Abstract of Interview

Zhaohui Xu was born in Suzhou, China, during the Cultural Revolution. His father was a supervisor of quality engineering in a textile factory, his mother a teacher of deaf children. Because the Revolution dictated a child's future occupation and education was not valued, there was no college; there was no academic pressure; there were few books, no movies, no television. Grade school had just two subjects, Chinese and mathematics. By fourth or fifth grade, however, things were changing again, and China was reverting to the placement-by-exam system of further education, beginning in about fifth grade. In junior high school Xu finally began science classes; he loved all of them, but especially chemistry. In high school he got a glimpse of an academic future; the top four percent of students taking the final high school exam were accepted into college; but one had to choose only one college before taking the exam, and if the college did not accept him, he had no other chances. Although there had been neither societal nor parental academic pressure on him, Xu always strove to rank first in his class, so he scored very high on the high-school final exam. He had chosen the University of Science and Technology of China for its good reputation and broader science base. In a five-year college period, one could choose electives only from third year on, and even then they were subsets of one's major. In his third year Xu began work on glucose isomerase in Wanzhi Huang's lab. Xu loved the excitement of discovery to be found in basic science, but because Chinese research facilities were so limited and unsophisticated Xu knew he wanted to go to graduate school elsewhere. Through CUSBEA (China-United States Biology and Biochemistry Examinations and Applications) Xu was accepted into the University of Minnesota. He began his rotations and discovered x-ray crystallization, so he entered Leonard Banaszak's lab, but also worked in the lab of David Bernlohr. During his last year Xu married his high-school sweetheart, and they had their first of two sons. Xu finished his PhD in three years and was accepted into Paul Sigler's lab at Yale University. He worked for a while on rhodopsin, but that was not successful, and he switched to GroEL and GroES. After six years there he accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Michigan Department of Biological Chemistry; he has since advanced to associate professor. He spends perhaps two-thirds of his time on the bench, working in three areas: determining the crystal structure of the trigger factor; determining the crystal structure of the cytosolic chaperones GroEL and GroES; and studying SecA and SecB. He has begun a collaboration with a Chinese lab; he feels that the stiff competition for college places produces better students there, and labor is cheaper. He also teaches and sits on an award selection committee; and he attempts to balance all this with his family life.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1989 University of Science and Technology of China BS Biology
1992 University of Minnesota PhD Biochemistry

Professional Experience

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

1993 to 1998
Post-Doctoral Research, Structural Biology

Yale University

1993 to 1998
Post-Doctoral Research, Structural Biology

University of Michigan

1999
Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Chemistry
2005
Associate Professor, Department of Biological Chemistry

Honors

Year(s) Award
1985 to 1989

University Scholarships, University of Science andTechnology of China

1991

Phi Kappa Phi, Member

1992

Bacaner Research Award, University of Minnesota

1999

Biological Sciences Scholar, University of Michigan Medical School

2001

Pew Scholars Program in Biomedical Sciences

2003

Basic Science Research Award (Dean's Award)

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Born in Suzhou, China, during Cultural Revolution. Parents' occupations. School. Grandmother as caretaker. Junior high school. First chemistry class; first experiment. Exam for placement in high school. Likes writing, but science has more cachet. College entrance exam.

College Years
12

Scores very high on high-school exam; is accepted at University of Science and Technology of China. Loves biochemistry. Works in Wanzhi Huang's lab on glucose isomerase. Facilities limited and unsophisticated after Cultural Revolution. Applies to United States through CUSBEA (China-United States Biology and Biochemistry Examinations and Applications). Accepted at University of Minnesota. Begins rotations but loves x-ray crystallization andsettles in Leonard Banaszak's lab. Works also with David Bernlohr. Finishes PhD in three years. Bacaner Award. Marries high-school sweetheart. First child born.

Postdoc Years
40

Enters Paul Sigler's lab at Yale University. Works on rhodopsin; switches to GroEL and GroES. Sigler's management style. Fragile crystals. Using synchrotron. Sigler's death. Thinking about career.

Faculty Years
51

Accepts assistant professorship at University of Michigan. Setting up his lab. Writing grants. Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences Award. Now on award committee. Still loves to work on bench. Teaches and writes. Collaborates with former student in China. American education compared with Chinese. Balancing work and family.

Index
80

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.