00:00:00COHEN: I usually like to start with something very simple, like when and where
were you born?
HUANG: I was born October 26, 1961, in a coastal city of China called Dalian, in
00:01:00the northern part of China. That was at that time in China right after the Great
Leap Forward movement. There was a lot of farming and bad nutrition, so kids
born at that time generally didn't have very much food. You can see that most of
the kids born at that time were kind of malnutritioned.
COHEN: Were you born in a farming community?
HUANG: No. My mother [Peng Jing Min] was a doctor in a military hospital in that
00:02:00city. Generally speaking, the military personnel fared better than the average
people in the factory or in the village. But my father [Huang Ce] was in
Beijing, so my mother and father were separated at that time.
COHEN: By their choice, or they were separated by the--?
HUANG: Well, they were separated after graduating from medical school. One was
assigned to Dalian, and the other was assigned to Beijing. I guess they were not
in love in college. They started their relationship after graduation, and then
they tried to work out the family. That was only later. Then my mother moved to Beijing.
COHEN: But that was after you were born?
00:03:00HUANG: After I was born, yeah. Maybe when I was about six years old the family
moved to Beijing.
COHEN: Now, was your mother in the military, or was she a civilian doctor
working with the military? Is there such a distinction?
HUANG: Well, now there is. But at that time, no; they wore military uniforms.
Both my parents went to this college in Harbin, the north part of China--Manchuria.
HUANG: Yeah, in that region. [They were at] that college--at that time it was
00:04:00the 1950s--from 1951 to '56 or '57. In '49 the communists took over China and
then they fought the Korean War with America, so my parents were recruited right
after the '49 revolution into the military, together with many high
school--about a hundred, two hundred or so--graduates mainly from three
provinces in central China: Hubei, Henan, Hunan. They were recruited to get
00:05:00trained so that they could later go to Korea to fight the war, and because they
were educated, they were not trained, actually, as soldiers, but they were
trained probably as doctors. So they were wearing uniforms when they were in
this college. Then the war in Korea was over before they graduated. In '53 I
think the war was over, and in '56 they graduated. Then all of their class got
assigned to different military units all over the country, either in biomedical
institutes or hospitals. So my father was assigned to the Chinese-- Academy of
00:06:00Military Medicine. Then my mother was sent to this hospital in Dalian.
COHEN: Now, were they trained in Western medicine or in traditional Chinese medicine?
HUANG: Western medicine. Yes, that whole college was in Western medicine.
COHEN: So when did they marry?
HUANG: When did they marry? 'Fifty-seven, '58. I'm not sure exactly, but around
COHEN: But they were still in two different places at that point?
HUANG: Right. At that time that was not so uncommon actually and people didn't
take it as such a strange thing. So that was common. You saw this kind of family everywhere.
00:07:00COHEN: Do you have other brothers and sisters?
HUANG: Yeah, I have a younger brother [Huang Wei], who is one and a half years younger.
COHEN: So you were the first?
COHEN: This was before the time they started limiting families to one child?
HUANG: Right, that was before.
COHEN: That was during the Cultural Revolution?
HUANG: After, I think. In the seventies they started to have that. Yeah, some of
my parents' classmates--one of them is very close--had actually three children.
COHEN: So the first few years of your life were in this northern province?
COHEN: Did you see much of your father during that time?
00:08:00HUANG: Not much. When I was born, I think he was not there. My father was more
like a workaholic. My mother's more the traditional type of woman that takes
care of the family. So yeah, not much.
COHEN: Did your mother stop working when you were a baby? Because in many
families, the grandparents took care of the children and the women worked.
HUANG: Yes, that happened also in my case. My grandparents [Huang Guo Yu and Xia
Xiao Yu] sometimes came over to live with us for a few months or half a year to
a year. Also, I was sent to my grandparents' home in the city of Wuhan, and I
00:09:00was with them for one year or so.
COHEN: How old were you when that happened?
HUANG: I think it was first grade. I actually attended school in that city.
Yeah, that happens. So the grandparents did take part in raising us. Also, we
hired a nanny-type to help when I was in that northern city. My mother continued
COHEN: I see.
HUANG: Yeah, you don't expect to quit work in that kind of a situation.
COHEN: So would these be your mother's parents or your father's parents?
HUANG: My father's parents. My mother's parents were already dead at that time,
00:10:00so I've never seen my mother's parents. But that was partly because my mother
was the smallest child of her father. Her father [Peng Shan Tian] had remarried,
so my mother's mother [Zhu Hua Xiu] was her father's second wife. During the war
with Japan, my mother's mother died of pneumonia, which if it were not for the
war, could have been cured easily with antibiotics. At that time it was just not
00:11:00available in this very backward city.
COHEN: Well, actually, penicillin didn't really become available until the
HUANG: Yeah, that's when it happened, in the 1940s. With the war in Japan, I
think it was around that time. That's my impression. So she died relatively
young. Then my mother's father, of course, was already pretty old when he had my
mother, so he had this hypertension problem. He passed away with bleeding in the
brain or something.
COHEN: A stroke?
00:12:00HUANG: Yeah, a stroke or something, in the fifties.
But my grandparents on my father's side were very healthy. They lived well over
eighty years old. They only passed away after I came here to the States, maybe
three years ago.
COHEN: Okay, so what is your brother like?
HUANG: My brother is a typical secondborn, I guess. Very low-key, relaxed, and
not very competitive. He did very well academically in middle school, so from
00:13:00middle school he went to a very good, very prestigious high school in Beijing.
But then he started going downhill academically [laughs] because he started
playing, so he ended up going to an average university in Beijing. From there he
went to an institute related to his major, which is something about mechanical
engineering. There's really not much to do in that kind of research institute.
Then he got a chance to go into an international trading company. It's called
00:14:00CATIC [China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation]. It's
something related to aircraft equipment and all sorts of machinery. They're
doing a lot of deals with South America right now, so my brother, right now, is
in Peru; he's trying to sell them military trucks. He got into this kind of
business. I guess, financially, he is doing very well right now. And this is a
state-controlled trading company. In the past, all the trade between local
00:15:00factories and the outside world had to be mediated by intermediary agencies like
this trading company. So that's what they're doing--connecting the customers in
the West with the producers in China.
COHEN: When you were a kid, did you get along with him?
HUANG: Yes, mostly. As I said, I was more of a typical firstborn. He was a
typical secondborn. So most of the time he would just obey me.
COHEN: How lucky for you.
HUANG: Sometimes we fought also. [mutual laughter] Yeah, that's kind of
unfortunate. Sometimes your birth order controls your fate and your personality.
00:16:00I see that now from my own two boys. The second one [Samuel Huang] is just-- You
worry how he will survive in this competitive society [mutual laughter] with all
the firstborns being so dominant.
COHEN: So is that how you would describe yourself growing up--more dominant?
HUANG: Yeah, I would say I 'm more dominant, more conventional, conservative,
traditional--that kind of thing. Even now if I talk with my brother about
politics and stuff, we have very different views. For example, Taiwan. I'd like
to see it reunited with China even if we have to take it by force, but my
00:17:00brother's not so much worried about that. I'm more of a conservative, I think.
COHEN: At what age did you start to go to school?
COHEN: Oh, not till seven? Wow. That's late compared to here. Kids here start at three.
COHEN: They go to preschool.
HUANG: That's preschool, yeah. In terms of kindergarten, I went to kindergarten.
COHEN: Kindergarten's five usually, here.
HUANG: By seven I meant going to real primary school--first grade.
COHEN: I see.
HUANG: Before that I did go to kindergarten, maybe [when I was] four or five.
COHEN: Is kindergarten academic at all, or is it just mostly play?
HUANG: Mostly play. That's my memory. I don't remember learning anything special.
00:18:00COHEN: So when did you go to Beijing? How old were you?
HUANG: I'm not sure exactly, because at that time there was-- My memory is that
I also went to Wuhan. I attended primary school there.
COHEN: That was with your grandparents?
HUANG: Yes. The reason for that was my mother had to be sent to the countryside
to be a doctor for the peasants and to get educated. You know, they're
intellectuals, and the government at that time was sending all these
intellectuals to factories, to villages, to the countryside, and to work in the
field in the meantime to serve the peasants.
COHEN: When you say to work in the field, you mean to do farming in addition to--?
HUANG: Yeah, yeah, right. In addition to taking care of them.
00:19:00HUANG: So my mother was sent to [Shanxi province]. Shanxi is a place [where] Mao
[Ze-dong] led his troops into the city. After the Long March they went to Shanxi
for some time to fight the Japanese. It's still a very poor place. My father was
somewhere, working, so both I and my brother then were sent to relatives' homes.
I was sent to Wuhan to live with my grandparents, and my brother was sent to
Shanghai to live with a relative on my mother's side. So I remember I spent a
00:20:00year or so in Wuhan, and then I came back to Beijing maybe when I was seven or eight.
COHEN: You know, the culture here is such that we would be horrified at
splitting up a family like that, but I guess this was sort of normal at that time.
HUANG: Yeah, at that time it was very normal.
COHEN: Do you recall how you felt about it--you know, being sent away from your
mother and younger brother?
HUANG: I don't remember anything.
COHEN: You don't remember?
HUANG: Yeah, I don't remember that much. I guess I was used to [being] without a
father. I don't remember how I felt when I was separated from my mother. I think
00:21:00I was more close with my mother than my father. That's for sure.
COHEN: So what were the circumstances that brought you all back together in
HUANG: I think somehow my mother managed to find a job in the Beijing military
hospital. I don't know how they found it, but that's how she moved to Beijing.
She had this job in another military hospital which was not too far from where
my father worked. It was about fifteen minutes by bus.
COHEN: At that point did you all live together?
HUANG: Yes. We lived in my father's military compound, where you actually had
00:22:00walls separating [you] from the streets, the outside. The compound was guarded
by about thirty soldiers with guns standing at the door. That was a research
institute of this military academy.
COHEN: So your father was a researcher--
COHEN: --rather than a-- Did he practice?
HUANG: No, he didn't practice medicine at all, I think. Right after graduation
he was assigned to this institute to do research. At the time it was considered
a more prestigious job to do research than to practice medicine.
COHEN: And what did he do? What kind of research?
00:23:00HUANG: He did microbiology. It was mostly an applied type of microbiology, like
how to detect pathogens. In the military during wartime, if there is some
bacterial warfare or something, you need to be able to detect the bacteria or
the pathogen. So I think he studied how to detect them using antibodies. He was
into developing antibodies, monoclonals. He also developed some kind of
instrument, a convenient type of microscope that was portable and could be
carried by soldiers in the field. Especially this fluorescent microscope--
00:24:00Normally, it's a big setup. He developed this convenient setup to put
immunofluorescent capacity to a regular microscope. He did that kind of work.
I think that work was highly praised in China; he got some prize for that and he
wrote a book about it. It was especially difficult to do because he did all this
work in this Cultural Revolution period when most people were not working on
00:25:00this type of work. So I think he did pretty well in his career. In his military
academy, he was maybe one of the top fifteen professors.
COHEN: So it sounds like you were around seven when you went to Beijing, right?
COHEN: Now, let's see, this would have been-- You said you were born in sixty--?
COHEN: So this would have been about 1968?
COHEN: When did the Cultural Revolution start? It was right around there.
COHEN: Okay. So tell me a little bit about your school experiences and then
anything you remember about the Cultural Revolution.
00:26:00HUANG: I think for primary school we basically--because of the Cultural
Revolution--could not go to very selective places. We went to school based on
geography. This school happened to be nearby, so we went to it not because it
was a good school-- If it was a bad school, we had no choice but to go. So the
school I went to was not particularly great. It was in the countryside. This
military compound was located in the suburbs of Beijing, so it was not in the
downtown city area; it was surrounded by farms. So this school was sort of like
a farm school, and the quality was not so good.
00:27:00I think we still went through all the normal classes. I don't remember that we
learned. Just played. There were still classes every day, except the text that
was taught was related to the Cultural Revolution. So there were a lot of
political articles to learn, like Mao's thoughts, Mao's writing. A lot of his
writings were in the textbook. I remember memorizing some of his articles. But I
think the classes were not very heavy.
00:28:00I think I had some interest in physical education and also art, like painting.
At that time I was very much into playing Ping-Pong, so I spent a lot of time
after schooltime playing Ping-Pong. At that time I think Ping-Pong was also very
popular in China. Some people won the championships, so I dreamed of becoming a
professional Ping-Pong player. [mutual laughter] So I basically had two hobbies
at that time: Ping-Pong and art.
I did well in those schools. I was sort of a class captain. In China, every
00:29:00class--about forty-five, fifty students--selects some leader-type position to
head the students or something.
COHEN: Is that based on your academic achievement or your popularity?
HUANG: I think it's the relationship with the teacher and academic achievement.
COHEN: So the teachers selected the leader--
HUANG: Yeah, I think the teachers selected.
COHEN: --not the other students?
HUANG: Not the students voting or something [mutual laughter], but I think my
academics were very good. I always remember being at the top of the class in academics.
COHEN: Now, I actually have already interviewed another person who grew up in
00:30:00China during the Cultural Revolution, and I'm interested in what your
perspective on it is, because Americans have this perspective that the Cultural
Revolution was a very repressive time in China. But the other scholar that I
interviewed said exactly the opposite.
HUANG: Oh, repressive? No, I did not feel repressed, because I think my parents
were not that repressed by this revolution, since they were-- Well, my father's
heritage must have been okay with the Chinese government. My grandparents were
peasants, so you can see they were Red. [laughs]
COHEN: That's a good thing to be.
00:31:00HUANG: That's a good thing. My mother's side was a little bit of a problem. It
was more like a capitalist type of heritage. But since they were both in the
military-- The military was relatively protected in the Cultural Revolution, so
I don't feel they were repressed, even though I sometimes worked with my father
to-- How do you say this? Basically, the military had a duty to provide energy
to-- During cold weather, you need--
COHEN: Oh, a power plant?
00:32:00HUANG: A power plant. And this was burning coals in this big stove to produce
steam to warm--
COHEN: For heat?
HUANG: --the houses for heat. My father actually was assigned to do that. So I remember--
COHEN: How old were you then?
HUANG: I think it was second or third grade.
HUANG: But I sort of think that was fun. It was not repression. So especially
from my perspective, growing up in the military compound was a lot of fun
because you got to play a lot. Mostly, of course, we played with kids in this
compound, and at the time there was a lot of activity going on--you know, all
00:33:00these kids playing together and group activity. Sometimes the kids--a group
inside the compound--would fight with kids outside, throwing bricks on either
side of the wall. It was very typical at that time in Beijing, because there
were many military compounds all over the city and there was, all the time,
fighting between the military kids and the nonmilitary kids. It was group
fighting--hundreds of people involved. There's a good movie describing that
period of life. It won some award in some European movie festival.
COHEN: What's the name of it?
00:34:00HUANG: In the Heat of the Sun. It describes this little kid growing up in a
military compound, what his life is like during that period. I saw that movie,
and I can relate to it so much. Basically that movie tells you these kids had a
lot of fun. [mutual laughter]
COHEN: Now, did your family have its own apartment? Because I know there are
periods of time in China where families had to share kitchen facilities. You
know, they might have sleeping quarters that were their own, but there was a
HUANG: No, I remember they always had their own units. It was more like the
00:35:00condominium type of arrangements here. So it was a stretch of units, and each
family got a single unit which was separated from the others, but they shared
walls. So all the housing was in this compound.
We always kept moving, with the houses [getting] bigger and bigger.
COHEN: So periodically you improved your--?
HUANG: Yeah, yeah, exactly, because ranking moves up as you get older. They
moved to the kind of houses that fit their ranking.
00:36:00COHEN: So how much of your life was inside this compound? Did you get out to do
things, or did you pretty much live there?
HUANG: Well, you go to school. That was outside. After school it was pretty much
inside. Then if you went shopping, you had to go outside. Yeah, at that time if
I was playing Ping-Pong-- Actually, the compound had better facilities. Yeah, [I
spent] a lot of time in this [compound].
COHEN: Well, American military bases have everything. They have shopping and
they have movies.
HUANG: We had everything.
COHEN: You could conceivably never leave.
HUANG: That's true. We had a small grocery shop for some food and stuff, but not
00:37:00for clothing of course. [For] that you had to go out. This military compound,
this institute, had everything, and they took care of everything.
COHEN: How long did you live there? Did you spend the rest of your childhood there?
HUANG: Yes, I think pretty much after I came to Beijing. I stayed there until I
graduated from high school. Then I went to university in Shanghai.
COHEN: Okay, we're going to get to that in a little while. Tell me a little bit
about the school system. Here we have elementary school, then middle school,
then high school. How is it where you were?
HUANG: At that time we had primary school; it was five years. At that time they
were just beginning the transition. Before the Cultural Revolution, primary
00:38:00school was six years. Then [with] the Cultural Revolution, they shortened that
into five years. So I ended up with five years of primary school.
COHEN: So until about twelve?
HUANG: Yeah. Then [there's] about five years of middle school and high school,
so basically middle school for three years and high school for two years.
COHEN: How did elementary school differ from middle school and high school?
HUANG: How did they differ? Usually they were at different locations, different
schools. Here, sometimes they have everything from first grade to tenth grade
all in one school sometimes.
COHEN: Usually not.
HUANG: Usually not, okay. There it's somewhat separate. Then of course the
curriculum is different.
00:39:00COHEN: The big difference here is that in elementary school, kids have one
teacher the whole day. Then when they go to middle school, they have different
classes. They go from class to class, so they have one teacher for history and
one for English and one for--
HUANG: That's sort of like in the university setting already.
COHEN: A little bit, yeah.
HUANG: They don't really have a fixed class.
COHEN: Well, no, it's fixed, but it's different rooms, different teachers. They
go every day to the same classes, but--
HUANG: Do you sit in the class with the same classmates every day?
COHEN: Yeah. So what was it like there?
HUANG: There, the classes were always fixed. For primary school you stay with
the same class for all five years. It's not like here. Every year they break up
the class-- from my kids' experience. So you stay with the same class for the
whole year. I think that's also true until high school; all the way through high
00:40:00school you stay with the same class. Then the primary teacher is responsible for
the general activities in his class. This teacher can happen to teach different
subjects. It doesn't matter. He can teach mathematics or literature or history,
but he is also responsible for one of the classes. And then different teachers
will teach this class.
COHEN: So the teachers come to you, or do you go to the teachers?
HUANG: Teachers come to this class.
COHEN: I see. You said academically that you did very well when you were little.
Did that continue on?
HUANG: Yeah, that continued on basically. That was not that demanding--the
Then during middle school there was a lot of emphasis on the students to learn
something else in addition to the traditional classes. So we learned from the
peasants, we learned from the workers, we learned from the soldiers. Each
quarter we were sent to the farms to actually help the peasants to harvest the
crops for two weeks maybe. Then [during] some quarter we were trained by
soldiers to walk straight.
HUANG: March--things like that.
COHEN: Did you like those things?
00:42:00HUANG: I think I didn't like the farm work that much, but the training by the
soldiers was okay. Also, we were sent to hospitals to learn from the doctors how
to treat patients. I remember doing acupuncture.
COHEN: Oh, really?
HUANG: Yeah, on patients. I learned that. I even remember I did that on my grandparents.
COHEN: Oh, really? [mutual laughter] That was brave of them to let you do that.
HUANG: But acupuncture is well accepted in China. It's not considered that dangerous.
COHEN: Oh, no, I mean it was brave of them to let a little kid do it.
HUANG: Yeah, even in the hospital they let us do it.
HUANG: I also remember I learned to sell stuff in a grocery store.
We did all these extracurricular activities during the middle school years, so
00:43:00you can see the classes were very light. There was no real pressure on
performing well for these studies, since there was no future. At that time
nobody thought they were going to end up going to universities, because at that
time universities stopped recruiting students the normal way, because
universities recruited from the students who had worked in the countryside and
then the selection was not based on academics.
COHEN: So at that point in your life, what did you think you were going to end
up doing in the future?
HUANG: One is, I worked real hard on my Ping-Pong. The other-- In middle school
there was a good art teacher. At that time, besides learning all this other
00:44:00stuff, they also encouraged you to participate in clubs of music, art, and
stuff. So I was in one of the art clubs--groups, they called it. I remember
doing very well in my painting. At least in my school, I must have been at the
top. So that further got me interested in it.
Up to this day I never thought I had a talent in art.
COHEN: Oh, really?
HUANG: I always thought that I did well in art because I trained hard. I was
trained that way. But then I realized from my kid--his art-- I have two kids
[Matthew and Samuel Huang]. The younger one [Samuel] is excellent in his art.
00:45:00Just natural. That talent was noticed by the teacher in his kindergarten. He
just continues to be very good. Recently, one of his pictures was selected for
exhibition at the San Diego [Museum of] Art in Balboa Park. One out of eighty
students in his class. He said he didn't even pay attention; he just drew it.
That's it. And the teacher selected it.
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE 1]
HUANG: From him, Sam, I realized he must have a talent, because his older
brother [Matthew Huang] is obviously not as good as he is. It's very clear. And
he certainly was not trained by anybody. It's just natural. So that makes me
think that maybe I also have some talent.
COHEN: Since you studied genes, maybe--
00:46:00HUANG: Yeah, that's how I feel now. But at that time in China, nobody--the
teachers or anybody--said this had anything to do with talent. We didn't get
that impression from the teachers. So I dreamed about being a Ping-Pong player
or a professional artist.
COHEN: Was that actually a possibility? I mean, my understanding is that pretty
much people were sent to the country, to farms.
HUANG: Yes, that was a possibility. To be a Ping-Pong player, definitely. To be
an artist, you don't have to go to a formal academy to get trained--that's my
understanding--so I think that was a possibility.
00:47:00In fact, that was very popular at that time since there was not much formal
academics you needed to spend time on which had no hope. If you do academics,
the aim is to go to a university. If university is not the outcome, then you do
something else. So I think art is one of the things that kids did at that time.
Another is music. A lot of kids studied music. My brother actually studied a
little bit of violin, but he was not interested in that at all.
COHEN: So when you graduated from high school-- Let me back up for a minute. Did
you have any aptitude yet that you knew of for science or math or any academic pursuits?
00:48:00HUANG: Oh, yeah. I remember I was very good at math. That was one of my strong
points. I even got the impression that people who are good at art are also good
at math, because one of my art teachers at the primary school also happened to
teach mathematics. So basically, I was interested in math and trying to do a lot
of homework and participating in the math olympiad and stuff. [I had] no
particular interest in science, because I knew in general that I would be
00:49:00pursuing science-related topics in contrast to literature or that kind of thing.
COHEN: You did know that?
HUANG: I did know that.
COHEN: Did you get a choice?
HUANG: No, I didn't get a choice. But somehow-- You know, we did have these
different classes [to] study this and that--math and history and literature. I
enjoyed reading novels and stuff, but I think that there is something to do with
Chinese traditional values [so that] I thought I would pursue real substance
careers. [mutual laughter]
COHEN: Which would be things that are more math and science?
HUANG: Yeah, more material--math and science. But not medicine somehow. I don't
COHEN: So when you were a kid, I know you played a lot of Ping-Pong and did
artwork, but did you play at science at all? Some of the people said they liked
to build things or they liked to take things apart.
HUANG: Yeah, there were students that played [with] radios; some had radio
transmitters and stuff. I actually didn't do any of those. Probably Ping-Pong
and art kept me, already, busy enough. I was pretty determined at that time. I'd
wake up at five or six in the morning--it was still dark--and I started running,
COHEN: For Ping-Pong?
HUANG: Yeah, for Ping-Pong and also just to keep in shape in general.
00:51:00COHEN: Wow. How many hours a day did you practice?
HUANG: I don't remember. Some days it was very long; some days short. It was not
a formal kind of training. It's not like when you go to a club. These days if
you want to learn something, there's always a class somewhere. You pay the fee
and then you get in.
COHEN: Here or there?
HUANG: Both places now.
COHEN: Both places?
HUANG: Yeah. But at that time there was not that kind of thing. It was all
between friends playing together.
COHEN: Did you ever actually compete?
HUANG: Yeah, I competed, representing the school to play other schools. The
school team--I was on it. But I guess I never moved up higher than that.
00:52:00My interest in Ping-Pong sort of stopped sometime after primary school. I got
more into art, so I was then spending a crazy amount of time in art. Sometimes I
remember staying up the whole night to paint, to draw. It was becoming sort of a
routine for me to just stay up nights. And now I can never do it. That's too
much of a disruption in your whole life. But at that time it was quite routine.
Then our teacher that had us as a group of art students in the summer break from
the school would have us go to the countryside, go to the scenery, go to the
00:53:00suburbs of Beijing, even the park to draw.
COHEN: This is a little bit interesting to me--that literature was considered a
soft pursuit. But art was not?
HUANG: Yeah, art was not.
COHEN: Because here we think of--
HUANG: In China, there is a saying: You have one skill as your specialty, then
you can live. You can fare well in society. So art, at least at that time, was
considered very prestigious. I don't know if it's useful, but maybe it was
00:54:00prestigious or something. And it's a skill. Whereas literature-- [laughs]
Everything in your mind--you have to write it. It doesn't give people the
impression that that's a skill.
HUANG: So you can make a living by being an artist--a good living actually.
That's because, I think, there are a lot of famous artists. They were perceived
as very high in society.
COHEN: Okay. So when you graduated high school you were about seventeen or so at
COHEN: You said you went to the university and I'm wondering how that happened,
because that wasn't--
00:55:00HUANG: You're interested in art? Okay, [this is] what happened: In the third
year of middle school things started to change, in '76 or '77.
COHEN: In the country, you mean?
HUANG: In the country. Deng Xiaoping started to take a position of leadership,
and then he started normal university education. And all of a sudden all these
high school students had a chance to go to university.
At that time I was in the third grade in middle school going to high school. I
was good at both art and the academics--math and stuff--but my first interest
00:56:00was in art. So after the first year in high school, I took an entrance
examination for the Central Academy of Art [Zhong Yang Mei Shu Xue Yuan] along
with several of my friends. I just barely failed that test, so I didn't get into
it. Then there was one year remaining before my formal graduation, so I said,
"Okay, there's this one year left. I'm going to try to study hard to get into a
regular university to do a career in science." [laughs]
COHEN: So you decided then to do science?
HUANG: Yeah, because I didn't get into that art academy.
COHEN: And why science as opposed to math? Because you said you were more
interested in math.
HUANG: Oh, math was just being good at it. I never thought of pursuing math as a career.
HUANG: So I went to a science university, and I needed to pick an interesting
subject. I think maybe my father helped a little bit in that regard, in picking
genetic engineering. I think genetic engineering at that time was just
up-and-coming, so it was a hot topic right then. That got me interested. I
wasn't going to be interested in medicine, so this was a good alternative.
COHEN: Now, did you have a choice though? The other scholar that I interviewed,
who is from China, was working on the farm--he'd been sent to the country--and
he was just plucked up and sent to a university and told what he was going to study.
HUANG: Yeah, that was before '77, must be.
COHEN: I think it was just when it first started, when the--
00:58:00HUANG: If he was just picked and assigned to something, then he must be the
class that was before '77.
COHEN: The very first--
HUANG: 'Seventy-six or '75. Those are the students who were sent to the
countryside and then picked to go to the university. For us, we needed to take
an entrance examination, then we had a choice of our universities and also subjects.
COHEN: Okay. So you went to Shanghai?
COHEN: And why did you choose--?
HUANG: Shanghai? I was always under the impression that-- Because I grew up in
Beijing and in this military compound, I saw a lot of educated
00:59:00people--professionals, famous scientists, artists, literates. They mostly spoke
Mandarin with an accent, meaning that they were not native Bejing people.
COHEN: Not native to Beijing?
HUANG: Not native to Beijing. They all somehow studied in Beijing and stayed on.
So to me, it was always romantic to go to a far place to study, just like I
imagined these people did when they studied here and then they became
successful. [I thought] maybe that's the way to become successful--to go to
faraway places. So I always thought of leaving my family to go to a different
place to study. And then Shanghai, of course, is the best place outside Beijing
01:00:00to go--the best universities.
Then in terms of the subject I chose, genetic engineering, the university I went
to is actually the best in that subject, not only in general reputation, but
particularly in that subject. There's this professor [C.C. Tan] who was a member
of the [National] Academy [of Sciences] here--the U.S. academy--a foreign
member, maybe the only one from the biology branch in China. He was a famous
professor in China, so I ended up going to that subject.
01:01:00COHEN: Now, when you describe your high school years, you say it wasn't really
very strong academically.
COHEN: So how did you do at the university if you didn't have a very good background?
HUANG: For one thing, most of the high schools were similar at that time,
because there was no hierarchy--you know, "This one's better than the other
one." Traditionally there are better ones; there are poor ones. But because of
the Cultural Revolution, every school was made pretty much average. And the
01:02:00students the schools had were also students who lived nearby, so there was no
real selection for good students for certain schools. You know, a lot of the
good schools are good because their students' scores are also good, not simply
because their teachers are good. So in that sense, most of the high schools at
that time were pretty similar--comparable-- although some schools were better.
They had more students getting into universities.
In my case, my background was really not that great, especially given that I
spent a lot of time in art. I was okay, but I wasn't at the top of the entering
class of my university, maybe below average in terms of the entering score. But
01:03:00somehow I've always had this idea that if you put me in an environment with a
group of students, then I would generally come out on top of this group of
people. I got that feeling when I was starting art. My art, when I got into that
group, wasn't at the top. But somehow I ended up being at the top by working
hard. So I was confident I was going to be okay. It turned out to be soon after,
maybe in a year or so, [that] my academics was already at the top of the class
01:04:00in the university. That doesn't have too much to do with what you have learned
in high school it seems to me. So if I start fresh entering the university and
just study the subject-- I just remember my test scores were pretty good--always
at the top.
COHEN: I want to back up for just a second. Were you disappointed when you
didn't get into the art school?
HUANG: Maybe a little bit. I don't remember how exactly disappointed, because I
know that even when I tried to do the test, I think I knew the chance of getting
01:05:00in was not going to be very good. It's just that there were so many good
competitors, especially [because] this was the first recruiting exam after the
Cultural Revolution and you had accumulated all these different ages of students
that had worked in the countryside and worked in various places. All their spare
time they were doing art, and you had to compete with all these [people]. I was
among the youngest of the students who competed--most of them were older--so I
wasn't expecting to really get in. Besides, my regular school subjects were very
good--math and stuff--so I had an alternative way to go.
01:06:00COHEN: Right, right. And by this time, because of the changes in the government,
there really was an alternative.
HUANG: There was an alternative, right. I was pretty good with the other
alternative also, so I wasn't that disappointed. It's not like this was the only
way to go: "If I don't go into this, I have no choice."
That's different from a close friend of mine [He Fei]. The two of us were from
the same school--we were from the same military compound; his parents were
classmates of my parents--so we both took the exam. My score was actually better
than his, so he didn't get in, and his regular subjects were relatively poor. He
01:07:00also decided to try to go to a regular university the next year, so he actually
participated in the exam for the regular university. But he failed. He didn't
get in. Then he decided to just do art. He persevered for several years.
Eventually he went to an art academy. So now he's a professional in art.
COHEN: Okay. So you were okay and happy with the idea of doing science at this point?
COHEN: Now, I'm trying to picture a map in my head to see how far away Shanghai
is from Beijing, and I can't quite picture it.
01:08:00HUANG: I think it's about one thousand kilometers. Is that about right? It's
pretty far. So if this is like a China map [draws a picture of a map of China],
this is the ocean side--the Pacific Ocean. Beijing is up north; Shanghai is south.
COHEN: Right there? Okay. And how did you get there?
HUANG: By train. That was how long? Twelve hours.
COHEN: I'm asking you this because I talked to the other scholar about the train
trip and he told a story about how hard the train trip was. How was it for you?
HUANG: I always enjoyed the train trips actually.
COHEN: You did?
HUANG: When I was young I took train trips from Beijing to Wuhan, Wuhan to
01:09:00Beijing, stuff like that. Once my head was broken by a kid who threw bricks into
the train. So I enjoyed that kind of trip actually.
COHEN: It wasn't too crowded?
HUANG: Sometimes it was, and sometimes not.
COHEN: Okay. So when you were in school, did they have dormitories for the students?
HUANG: Yeah, yeah. Eight students in one little room.
HUANG: Yeah, eight students! [mutual laughter]
COHEN: Not much privacy.
HUANG: No. And then the beds were stacked up.
COHEN: So how many people in a stack?
01:10:00HUANG: Two. One on top and one on the bottom. I was at the top because I went in
late. After I got into the dormitory room there were already six or seven
students who already took their positions. [mutual laughter]
COHEN: And you got what was left.
HUANG: I got what was left, which was not very good--near the door, the top. The
better ones would be near the window. I think it's still like that.
COHEN: So did you enjoy the university?
HUANG: Yes, I think I enjoyed it a lot. It was a good period of time.
Academically, it was not so difficult, it turns out. I was doing very well,
01:11:00especially with my English and math and biology-related subjects.
COHEN: Did you speak English when you went there?
HUANG: Yes. We had to take this English test, so we studied some English in high
school. Then in university, of course, we also have English classes all through
the four-year period.
COHEN: I always think English would be really hard to learn if you weren't born
speaking it, if it weren't your first language.
HUANG: It may be hard. I just don't know how to compare it because I haven't
learned any other foreign language, like Japanese or Russian. I've only studied
English. Yeah, I was doing very well in that.
01:12:00COHEN: Okay. So how long did you spend at the university?
HUANG: Four years.
COHEN: And you came out with something like a bachelor's degree?
HUANG: That's right--a bachelor's degree in genetics.
COHEN: I noticed from your resume that then you went to an English program for a year.
HUANG: Yes. Right, right.
COHEN: Tell me a little about that?
HUANG: That was not an English program. That was basically a prep school for
getting into a U.S. university for graduate studies. At that time the normal
path was for the graduates, if they want further education, to get into a
01:13:00graduate program either in China or in foreign countries. To go to a foreign
country based on a government scholarship was very selective, so the
students--most of the graduating class--would take this national entrance exam
again, this time for graduate school.
COHEN: To go to a Chinese graduate school?
HUANG: Yeah, to go to a Chinese graduate school. But they also understand that
the better ones--the ones that have high scores in those tests--would have a
chance to get picked to go to a U.S. university or another country for study.
Well, that was my aim at that time--to try to be selected for graduate school in
01:14:00the U.S.Then there was this program called China-U.S. Biochemistry Examination
Application program--for short, CUSBEA. That program was sponsored by the
Chinese government and the American university professors, especially this
Chinese American professor called Ray Wu. Basically, he started this program by
coordinating about fifty, sixty U.S. universities to participate in this program
to recruit Chinese students. Each year they would select about fifty to sixty
students from the graduating classes of all the universities in China.
So what happened was, I did well on my test for the graduate program, and then I
01:15:00was selected to participate in another test for getting into this CUSBEA
program. I did well on that one too, so I ended up getting among the top fifty
students who then were going to go to the U.S. Before that happened, all these
students were sent to the Guangzhou [English] Language Center to prepare for
American culture, to study English a little more, and--in the meantime--to apply
for schools in the U.S.
COHEN: Well, what made you want to go to the U.S. in the first place? I mean,
what was it that made you want to do that as opposed to going to graduate school
01:16:00HUANG: Well, for certain, we all understand that China is relatively backward in
science, and to be a successful scientist-- Even at that time I think I was
thinking to just get trained [and] eventually I would come back to China. For
that aim, training abroad is considered a plus. It has been traditionally. If
you look at the famous scientists of China at that time, most of them have
training in the U.S. or Europe. So that was a no-brainer. Every student would
like to go if they want to study science.
COHEN: Well, you had already left home once--
COHEN: --so that was familiar. But it's another story to go to a completely
HUANG: Yeah, I wasn't that afraid, actually.
01:17:00HUANG: Not at all. I think I belong to the adventurous type, you know? I
remember reading all these novels about students being sent to remote places in
China during the Cultural Revolution. And my dream at that time, actually,
before university, was to go to some place like that. [laughs] To be far away
from Beijing and to go to the northern border of China or something. I was
always like that. Then, of course, going to Shanghai, you really have to get
used to living independently of family and parents. I wasn't that much attached
to my family in the first place. Since I was growing up pretty much, my father
01:18:00was always absent [laughs], so I was always pretty much independent.
COHEN: Okay. Now, we're going to talk some more about coming to the States and
stuff, but before we leave China, how was your social life during this period? I
mean, what kinds of things did you do for fun when you were in college?
HUANG: When we were in college what kinds of things did we do for fun? I think
at that time it was still quite-- It was not as liberal as it is now, so there
weren't that [many] fun activities as they have now. You're not supposed to get
involved in a relationship with a female classmate, for example.
COHEN: Oh, you weren't supposed to?
01:19:00HUANG: No, you were not supposed to. Of course, there were some dancing parties
occasionally, so I went to those occasionally. I think my goal was pretty clear
in the university period, which was to study hard and then, also, to keep in
shape. So study and exercise were my two major activities.
COHEN: Were you running still?
HUANG: Yes. So I studied very late, to eleven or eleven thirty in the evening,
and then got up early in the morning to run. That was like six or seven o'clock.
Then I went to classes, and then in the afternoon after class, about from four
01:20:00or five or six, I would participate in the exercise again, like volleyball,
Ping-Pong, and stuff. Then after dinner was study again. On the weekends I
sometimes went and visited my relatives living in Shanghai, or I visited friends
in other universities. The rest was just study.
COHEN: Did you meet your wife [Chen Ruo Ping] here?
HUANG: Yes, here.
COHEN: Okay. Well, we'll get to that. So then you went to this sort of prep
school for about a year.
HUANG: That was a wonderful-- [laughs]
COHEN: That was wonderful?
01:21:00HUANG: --period of play and relaxing, because you know you don't have to pass
any tests anymore. Basically you are studying some English. Of course, you have
to get a certificate, but that was routine; you normally would get it. So that
was really fun. You study, and the classes were light. Then you get to play with
all these friends in the same class. And then you are in this different city,
Guangzhou, a southern city that was in the forefront of opening up, being
liberalized in China, so you could get to visit a lot of places in the city. So
01:22:00that was really a lot of fun.
COHEN: Sounds like it was no pressure.
HUANG: Right, no pressure. You could say that, yes. So after four years of hard
study, all of a sudden you are released.
HUANG: You have a bright future in front of you, right? So it was really--
Everybody was in a happy mood.
COHEN: And it was during this year that you started applying to schools?
HUANG: Yes, during this year you started applying to schools and waited for the
response. Then after you knew which school you got into, some students were
happy, some were not happy based on whether they got their ideal school or not.
One of my friends--we were living in the same dormitory in this language
center--was from my same university and he had a top three finish in the test
01:23:00scores. He was expecting to get into Harvard [University] or something. Among
his list--among five choices--he was given Harvard. And when it turned out he
wasn't going to get into Harvard, he was so shocked that he went crazy. I think
he had a schizophrenia type of history before, in college. He was off of school
one year to recover from that, and this triggered a second burst of this break.
He stayed behind in China.
COHEN: So where did you apply? I know where you ended up.
HUANG: I applied to UC Davis, [University of California] Irvine, Dartmouth
01:24:00[College], [University of] Utah. I forget the other places. I think there were
about five. My score at that time was in the top fifteen. It was not in the top
ten, so I wasn't going to get into Harvard or something. But the top fifteen is,
among fifty, already a privilege, because we get actually government money,
whereas the rest don't have any government money from China. They rely totally
on U.S. universities to provide the support, whereas for the top fifteen
students, we have the first-year support covered by our government; some
universities require that first-year students have their own financial support,
which is the case with UC's. So among the five I was given, I thought that UC
01:25:00Davis would be the best. So that's where I ended up going.
COHEN: So that was your first choice out of the ones that--?
HUANG: Right, right.
COHEN: This business of getting the money from the government-- I want to ask
you about that because you didn't go back.
COHEN: Were there any, we would say, strings attached?
HUANG: At that time, no. The Chinese government then was not led by some experts
in anything. They do things by learning gradually. So at that time they didn't
realize; it was new for them to start this kind of program, so they didn't
attach any strings to this. But now I've learned that they do.
COHEN: So you were kind of lucky. You slipped in during this little window of time.
01:26:00HUANG: Yeah, maybe. But in truth, we were really not thinking of staying in the
U.S. either. Even when I was here the first year, I wasn't thinking about
staying. I was still thinking [about] learning and then going back.
COHEN: Sure. So when you arrived at Davis-- I'm familiar with Davis because my
daughter went there. It's kind of out in the middle of nowhere.
HUANG: That's right.
COHEN: In fact, some of the dormitories are right next to the cow pastures.
COHEN: What was your first impression when you got there?
HUANG: My first impression was kind of, I guess, a cultural type of shock. It
was so much different from the city where I used to live. You know, Shanghai,
01:27:00Beijing-- They're all big cities. All of a sudden, you're in a countryside where
you can't go anywhere without a car. Biking is popular there, so I ended up with
a bicycle the first few days of arriving. Basically, it's so different. On the
streets, you don't see people walking. It's really a deserted place. So the
first month was a little bit miserable. Yeah, I felt a little bit homesick.
This was in contrast to my friend who later came to the States. He directly came
to New York. I visited him three or four days after he landed in New York, and I
said, "What's your impression?" He said, "Just like Shanghai." [mutual laughter]
01:28:00So apparently if you first arrive in New York, you can feel that way; you don't
see too much difference. But Davis is quite different.
COHEN: How were your language skills at this point? I mean, could you get along
okay with your English?
HUANG: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I don't feel that language was a big problem.
COHEN: Okay. I'm trying to remember what it was that you studied there. Oh, you
were with Dr. [John W.B.] Hershey, right? And you went into biochemistry.
COHEN: So what made you decide on biochemistry from genetic engineering?
HUANG: Well, there was not much of a choice, actually. The program that accepted
me was the biochemistry program. The genetics program was not participating--
COHEN: Oh, I see.
01:29:00HUANG: --in the CUSBEA program. So from UC Davis, biochemistry was the program,
and Hershey was actually the coordinator for the Davis program in regards to Ray
Wu. So Ray Wu actually contacted Hershey. Hershey was coordinating this Chinese
student program, actually.
COHEN: I see.
HUANG: But I picked Hershey not because of that reason. I chose that subject
based on my feeling of what was the best science available on this campus. I was
selecting research topics mostly based not on my interest in a particular
subject, since I didn't really have a preference for any of those. I just
01:30:00[wanted] to get trained with a scientist who was at the top of his subject. At
Davis, there are not too many professors like that. I thought Hershey was at the
top of his field, so I thought that he would be a good choice.
COHEN: Well, I have learned a couple of other languages over the years, and I
know that even though I'm pretty fluent, the idea of having to sit and write an
exam, for example, is a pretty daunting idea. But you said you felt like you
were pretty well able to do that?
HUANG: Yeah. At least I don't feel that my language was a limiting factor in my
01:31:00performance in the classes--in the tests and stuff. [With] most of those, you
may have some difficulty in understanding the teaching [in a] class, but you can
always study the books.
COHEN: But how about your dissertation, for example?
HUANG: The dissertation? Writing papers?
HUANG: That was already four years later. You are already adjusted very well at
that time. I wrote my papers, and then the professors corrected them and put
them together. That was it. So it wasn't such a big deal to write this
dissertation. It's just two papers that you have to write for publication
purposes. In this case, we just made it simple; we just combined the two papers.
That was the dissertation.
COHEN: I see. So what was that lab like?
01:32:00[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE 2]
HUANG: I got a good impression of the lab. It was a friendly lab with about a
dozen people. Very American. Nice. We had birthday parties almost every month
since you had close to fifteen people. Everybody's birthday party was
celebrated. [mutual laughter] You buy a cake--wine--and then just have the party
01:33:00in the lab. And we had postdoc students from America, from Europe. We got two
from Britain, one from France, one from Switzerland. My first direct supervisor
was a postdoc from Scotland. So I got to learn different cultures.
I worked pretty hard in the lab. The professor [John W.B. Hershey] did not push
at all. I had to push the professor to get him interested in what I was doing
01:34:00and to get papers published. He pretty much operated that you get your own ideas
and you pursue them. [He] let you do your things freely.
COHEN: Was that good or bad?
HUANG: I think it was good.
COHEN: Some people need more direction and some people prefer not.
HUANG: Yeah, but if you want to be an independent-thinking scientist, it's
better to be trained that way--that you're left alone. But when you needed
guidance, he was available. It was also nice that you could pursue your own idea
right from the beginning. That was my case. I did a rotation in the lab, and
then I started working on the project in the lab. He laid out about a dozen
01:35:00different things in the lab that were going on and asked me which one I would be
interested in doing. I selected one, so I worked with that postdoc that was
working on that project.
During the few months of working on that project I got an idea of studying this
by sitting in on a seminar. The speaker had talked about a method of studying
DNA protein binding interactions using a gel electrophoresis assay. Our lab was
interested in studying RNA protein interactions, so I thought, "I'll just use
the same technique to apply it to RNA instead of DNA." I thought that was a
great idea since even for the DNA protein interactions field, that was just
01:36:00beginning to be used, and it had never been used for RNA. So I mentioned this
idea, and the professor liked it a lot. Indeed, I spent two years on this idea,
using this assay to study all these factors--RNA binding translation
factors--that Hershey was involved with to figure [out] what their function is
in RNA binding stuff. So you can say I pretty much pursued a project that was
based on my idea.
It was kind of tough because you don't get too [much] help, since this is new
and everything you have to solve yourself. And then initially it looked pretty
01:37:00exciting, but gradually we couldn't really make an interesting story out of
this. So that work lasted for two years, and still I didn't get a paper out of it.
COHEN: Oh, that's hard.
HUANG: That's hard, but I learned how to pursue things and do things your way
things done. And even though nothing in terms of a paper came out of this study,
I think the way I pursued it and the way I got this idea impressed my supervisor
But anyway, after that we talked about doing a project that could quickly lead
to something publishable and get my degree. So then he suggested an idea. I
01:38:00worked for one year, and then--
COHEN: Is that the initiation factors?
HUANG: Yeah, that's the MCB [Molecular and Cellular Biology] paper [S. Huang and
J.W.B. Hershey, 1989. Translational initiation factor expression and ribosomal
protein gene expression are repressed coordinately but by different mechanisms
in murine lymphosarcoma cells treated with glucocorticoids. Molecular and Cell
Biology 9:3679-84]. So that was finished in the fourth year in the lab.
COHEN: Okay. Now, you hear all these stories--I've heard many of them by
now--about how many hours people work when they're in graduate school, and some
people work like eighteen hours a day, it seems like. What was your schedule?
HUANG: I came to the lab maybe at nine or ten. I usually worked at night, so
that meant after dinner I would go back to the lab. I don't remember how late [I
worked], but not too late, I don't think. Maybe ten, eleven. Then, also,
01:39:00weekends I would work. To me it was fine. I liked to do it, it seems like. It
didn't feel like because the boss asked me to do it or something-- Most of the
time I felt I was most productive when the boss was on sabbatical. [laughs]
COHEN: Somewhere else?
HUANG: Yeah, for the last half a year or year he was in Japan on sabbatical.
That was when I was finishing my degree. So I finished it up without him being present.
COHEN: Oh, wow. And were you still running and doing your physical--?
HUANG: Absolutely. I dropped the Ping-Pong.
HUANG: Yeah, because I got interested in tennis and I got interested in
badminton. I think tennis I picked a little bit, but I was playing, heavily,
01:40:00badminton. Yeah, very heavy, like, maybe four o'clock to six o'clock. Most of
the afternoons I'd go play badminton sometime in the evening.
COHEN: It sounds like sports were pretty important to you.
HUANG: That's right, I was always keeping up with sports. I don't know why. I
think maybe also I have a natural talent again.
COHEN: It was a natural talent?
HUANG: Again, from my second son [Samuel Huang] 's experience. My older son
[Matthew Huang] was not very athletic at all, not interested in any kind of
sports, whereas my younger son was good at tennis and picked up golf easily.
Just naturally more athletic. You can tell.
COHEN: Okay. So what year did you finish? I have it on your record, but I don't remember.
01:41:00HUANG: The end of '89.
COHEN: And at that point you had to find a postdoc.
COHEN: So you went to UCSD [University of California, San Diego].
COHEN: How did that come about?
HUANG: How did that come about? Well, this had a little to do with my wife [Chen
COHEN: Oh, had you already met her?
COHEN: Okay, let's back up then. Tell me about meeting her?
HUANG: My wife was the next class of CUSBEA [China-U.S. Biochemistry Examination
and Application program]. I came in '84, and she came in '85.
COHEN: To [University of California] Davis?
HUANG: To Davis, under the same CUSBEA program. So I met her at the airport
because she had already contacted me; from this program they knew who was there
01:42:00before, so she contacted me and asked me to pick her up. I went and then we met
each other and it seems like we liked each other. So we started a real serious
relationship maybe a couple of months later after we met.
She went to a lab in the genetics department for about two years. Then the boss
was on sabbatical, and she started not liking the subject that much. Then she
was interested in switching to a lab, or better, switching to a different
university. At that time I was also very encouraging since I knew I wasn't going
01:43:00to stay at Davis for the postdoc. So it was a good arrangement--it turned out to
be--that she ended up at UCSD to continue the graduate program. In the UC
[University of California], you're allowed to do this: you will still get a
Davis degree, but you do your thesis work on a different campus. So she selected
a very good lab here--Jeff [rey] Rosenfeld, who was later to become a member of
the [National] Academy [of Sciences]. She came here in '87 sometime--summer of
'87--and during all these things we still kept the relationship. I'd often drive
to San Diego. She also went back to Davis often.
01:44:00Then I graduated and I started looking for postdocs. Even though San Diego was
in my mind, I really did not limit my selection to only San Diego. Mostly [I was
looking at] Boston and San Diego, I believe. Then it turned out that this lab at
UCSD--I realized it was an emerging field--was considered to be at least in the
forefront of that field. That was always my selection criteria: that whether
it's interesting or not, the lab doing it has to be in the forefront. So even
01:45:00though this lab wasn't that famous, because it was an assistant professor [who]
just discovered something big--had a paper in Nature and Science; that's how I
found out about this--I thought, "He is working on an interesting subject, and I
can at least do something in this field that may later lead to a career."
COHEN: This was the--?
HUANG: Tumor suppressor, Rb. Yeah, at that time it was just being cloned as a gene.
COHEN: And this is Dr. [Wen-Hwa] Lee?
HUANG: Yes. He happened to be in San Diego, so that's how I came there.
COHEN: And when did you marry?
HUANG: In 19--
COHEN: Don't hesitate too long.
HUANG: [mutual laughter] It's tough because we really didn't have a formal
01:46:00ceremony. Both of our parents are not here, and I am not into that formality and
she is not either. So 19--
COHEN: Well, in China you just have to register, don't you?
HUANG: Yeah, we just have to register. So we registered at the China consulate
in L.A. I think it was in '89 or something. I think marriage was in '89--the
spring of '89, sometime around April.
COHEN: Let's just talk briefly about your postdoc, and then we'll wrap it up for
01:47:00today. Were you particularly interested in tumor suppressor genes before you
came here? Did you know that was what you wanted to do, or were you just looking
for an interesting topic?
HUANG: I was just-- Yeah. You see, I studied translation. Nothing related to
cancer. So I wasn't particularly interested in tumor suppressor. I was more
interested in finding a good lab with a good research subject. So in my
selection of postdoc labs, the specialty of the labs varied a lot. It just
happened that this tumor suppressor worked out. Then once I got into this, of
course I got myself interested.
01:48:00COHEN: Sure. And how did this lab differ from Dr. Hershey's lab?
HUANG: Of course, the lab head was not American. He was educated in Taiwan. So
there were probably no birthday parties [mutual laughter], and there were more
Chinese than Europeans and Caucasians.
COHEN: You said he was young?
HUANG: He was relatively young, right. Also, it operated as a husband and wife
01:49:00team. So it was quite different in terms of culture. It was much less relaxed.
More pressure, I guess. With Hershey we sometimes went on wine-tasting trips in
the Napa Valley. Here, we didn't really have lab trips.
COHEN: It sounds like the lab was a place to work and there wasn't a social life.
HUANG: Right, it wasn't social at all. Just work.
But in terms of my own-- I didn't feel too much of a difference since I'm mostly
self-driven. And again, the projects I've become successful [at were] all
01:50:00initiated by my own thought. [When] I first came, I was given a subject to do,
which was to clone the Drosophila homologue of the Rb suppressor gene. That was
the topic I was given, so I did that. But I knew from the beginning this was
going to be a shaky project--could work, may not work--so I could end up doing a
lot of work for nothing. Cloning something is always-- Until you get it, all
your hard work is nothing.
Based on my graduate training experience, I knew I had to have something going
on the side--to keep productive in case this one didn't work out. So I also did
another thing, which was my idea--to try to study Rb binding to viral protein,
01:51:00to just study the interaction a little more in detail. I mapped which regions of
Rb are involved in binding to this viral protein. That turned out to be
successful. The Drosophila project really didn't pan out after half a year, but
in the meantime, this one worked out. That ended up being in EMBO [European
Molecular Biology Organization] journal [S. Huang et al., 1990. Two distinct and
frequently mutated regions of retinoblastoma protein are required for binding to
SV40 T antigen. European Molecular Biology Organization 9:1815-22].
Then soon after that I initiated this project to express the Rb protein in
bacteria. At that time the professor was always saying, "That cannot be done,"
because it's big and stuff. But I did it anyway, and got it expressed as a
truncated form. Immediately with these reagents, I did the next thing, which was
01:52:00to see if there was a cellular protein that can bind to Rb. That also worked
out, and that was the basis for the Nature paper [S. Huang et al., 1991. A
cellular protein that competes with SV40 T antigen for binding to the
retinoblastoma gene product. Nature 350:160-62] establishing the concept [that]
there is such a protein [that] exists in the cell that normally binds to Rb.
Before that, people just knew there was this viral protein that could bind to
Rb. They always suspected that there should be a viral homologue in the cell
that binds to Rb, so that paper addressed that issue.
This basically opened up the field for the binding protein business. From then
on you've got many, many binding proteins being characterized now.
COHEN: So how long were you in the postdoc then?
01:53:00HUANG: I was there two years and a half. Then the lab moved to San Antonio. I
knew I wasn't going to go, so I started looking for faculty positions.
COHEN: Had your wife graduated by this time?
HUANG: By this time? Not yet.
COHEN: So you kind of needed to stay somewhere on the West Coast?
HUANG: Yes, somewhere here, preferably. Just for the sake of it, I searched
other places. But in the end, I did prefer here.
COHEN: And you ended up here.
COHEN: Now, it's not entirely clear to me what the relationship is between the
Burnham Institute and the university.
HUANG: Oh, the Burnham Institute was a private, nonprofit institute that was
01:54:00independent from the university--nothing at all related. But recently they've
tried to have some kind of interaction--more. So we have some sort of joint
graduate program, so some graduate students from UCSD can somehow work in our
labs to get their degrees from the school.
COHEN: But do you have the title of professor even though you're not at a
university? You do, don't you?
HUANG: We do have professors. That was only recently [that] they switched this
title. They had been always debating what title we'd call ourselves. When I
first started, we called ourselves staff scientists. But then two years ago,
after we established this joint program, some faculty here actually taught
classes there. Then we said, "Okay, we should call ourselves professors just to
01:55:00make it easier for other people, colleagues, to understand what's going on." You
know, if we go out and call ourselves staff scientists, they don't know how this
is relative to the professorship.
COHEN: They think you're in industry, probably.
[END OF TAPE 2, SIDE 1]
[END OF INTERVIEW]
COHEN: As always, I have a few follow-up questions after reviewing yesterday's
01:56:00tapes. One of the things I was wondering was whether, when you were growing up
in China, you had any kind of formal religious training?
HUANG: Not at all. [laughs]
COHEN: Any religious training at all? None?
HUANG: No, not at all, even though my mother [Peng Jing Min] went to a religious
school in the city of Wuhan.
COHEN: Was that like a missionary school?
HUANG: Yeah. That was before the '49 revolution. But since the communists took
over, basically no religion was allowed.
COHEN: Right. Is that anything that you wish you had--or not?
HUANG: Not really.
COHEN: Not really?
01:57:00HUANG: Yeah. After we came here we were invited a few times to some religious
practices or gatherings, and we really didn't like what was going on there.
COHEN: Okay. Do you think religion and science can coexist?
HUANG: I think so, yeah. Religion, I think-- Even though I'm not into religion,
I'm very much interested in philosophy and how people view life and stuff--what
do they consider to be happy and stuff like that. So I think I consider myself
to have some sort of faith. You can call that religion or you can call that
01:58:00philosophy in terms of how I view life. I came to that view by my own experience
without reading so much about religion or philosophy. I came to some conclusions
which I found sort of interesting and very true to me, and I thought, "This is
such a simple idea, it must have been written down somewhere in the history
books or the philosophy books." And indeed, it was written down more than two
thousand years ago by the Chinese philosopher.
HUANG: Mencius, isn't it? [Confucius] and [Mencius] are always stated together
as two names. Maybe Confucius is more famous in the West.
01:59:00So things like that I sort of figured out by myself. And then I have my own way
of thinking. Therefore, I do not really need any religion, even though many
religions probably have some common ideas as I have. I think religion is helpful
to people who don't really have their own thoughts in terms of viewing the world
and life. They need some guidance, and religion can come in to really help them
out in that fashion.
COHEN: So what was the enlightenment that you had?
HUANG: Well, that is based on my experience. Things have come to me the hard
02:00:00way, basically. I had to pay the dues before I got something good in return. It
never comes as total luck. Even if something came, maybe I expected that good
things would happen. But then it was soon followed by something bad. It always
goes like this. Luckily, the trend has always been moving up; it's like this
[indicates upward line of trajectory]. So I concluded that you have to pay your
dues. You have to work hard in order to get what you want.
02:01:00But I think there is one thing that is still missing among things that have been
written by philosophers. I view this as sort of random chances. It's almost like
a probability issue. Once you have something bad happen, your chance of having
another bad thing is going to be low, whereas your chance of having a good thing
happen is going to be high. So then, naturally, we have something nice happen
later on. It's sort of like fate. It's sort of like God is coming in. If you
have suffered a lot, then God may come in to make sure you will have something
good. Some people will usually think this is cause and result--you know, you
work hard, therefore you naturally get that. But that's not necessarily true. I
02:02:00think it's something to do with the chance happening of things.
So this idea of working hard and then getting things in return, getting rewards,
was in the writing of Mencius two thousand years ago. Literally, he says you
have to starve to death before God, Heaven, or something is going to put some
real responsibility to you or let you accomplish something really important.
He's going to let you work really hard and starve yourself to death and suffer.
And I've found my experience has been like that.
02:03:00That is actually very good in terms of having a positive outlook, so that when
you're down, you don't really suffer that much. You always think something nice
is going to happen. But then when you're very successful, you need to be careful
not to get excited too much. Then the next day something bad is going to happen.
COHEN: Disaster is just around the corner.
HUANG: Yeah, right. There is this Chinese philosopher-- Taoism considers
everything should be natural, and if you are at the peak, you are to fall down
deeper than the average person.
02:04:00COHEN: I was also thinking a little bit back to when you were a child. We talked
a little bit about your education and whatnot, but I was wondering what
expectations your parents [Huang Ce and Peng Jing Min] had for you and your
brother [Huang Wei] in terms of what you would do, what you would achieve. Did
they have expectations?
HUANG: I'll first refer to myself and then my brother. For me, I always was sort
of a very determined person from very young. So like I said, when I was at
primary school, I started playing Ping-Pong, and I think my family was basically
02:05:00very supportive of whatever I chose to do. I didn't really get the impression
they specifically wanted me to become a Ping-Pong player, for example, but if I
worked really hard on that, they also did not stop me. Then I changed to
painting, and again they were very supportive of that. Of course, the regular
academics--because I was generally, most of the time, very good-- I also didn't
get that impression that the parents were trying to push me in that direction.
But I can tell that if I did poorly in academics, probably my parents would not
be happy. The first example of that was when I came from Wuhan to study in the
02:06:00Beijing school. I was a little bit backward in terms of my academic status
compared to my classmates in the new school. I wasn't able to memorize the
numbers times numbers--you know, the basic three times three equals what--and
the parents really just forced me to improve on that. I think from that incident
you can tell they expected me to be good at school. So even though I had all
02:07:00these extracurricular activities, my school academics were always good.
For my brother-- He was expected to learn something besides school; maybe the
school academics were not so heavy and he had much, much more free time. So he
went to study violin for a while; I think that must have been my parents' idea.
It turned out he didn't like it that much-- he didn't practice very hard--so my
parents also didn't push very hard in that direction. And that was that. Then I
think my parents were, again, very forceful in terms of, "This kid has to be
good with academics."
02:08:00COHEN: With your brother, you mean?
HUANG: Yeah, with my brother. My brother was doing well before high school, as I
told you. That high school entrance test he did very well, so he moved up from
this local middle school where my home is close to the high school in downtown
Beijing, one of the best high schools in Beijing.
COHEN: So he did better than you did, because you stayed at the local school.
HUANG: Yeah. But that was because in his time there was this, again--
COHEN: The chance of going to college now.
HUANG: --chance of going to college and also going to the key schools, they call
it. They started this program again, so he was able to go to a good school, a
02:09:00key school. He actually lived on campus and just came home during the weekends.
It was just like he went to university in that sense.
Then he started to play soccer--just played with a lot of friends--and his
academics really dropped, maybe below average in his class. Sometimes his test
scores were so poor. So my parents were so concerned. Every time they would talk
to my brother. They even went to the high school to meet with the teachers to
discuss what was going on. They were really concerned over that.
So I think yeah, indeed, they did have some kind of expectation that "You need
to perform well in school." But they were not like some parents like I see here
02:10:00that really spend so much time with their kids in terms of helping them learning
some skill, like figure skating or tennis or soccer. The parents actually go
with the kids and spend all the time-- I didn't see my parents spending a lot of
time, you know, trying to help me with painting or something. They pretty much
left us alone. Once we had an interest in something they thought was useful or
good, they left us alone. They didn't try to spend extra effort to cultivate
COHEN: You know, here, there's a lot of pressure on kids, because you have to
get into college and you have to get into grad school. There are all these
things. Whereas when you were growing up, there wasn't even the likelihood that
02:11:00you would get into college. Do you think that your parents maybe were more
relaxed with you than your brother because the situation was different or
because you were more of a self-starter?
HUANG: Yeah, I think I'm more self-driven--they could see that--and my brother
was not like me.
COHEN: I see.
HUANG: He's much more relaxed, and they could see that his doing poorly in
school was simply because he was playing too much. He was not paying attention.
It was not because he was dumb or something. So they just had to change his
attitude. [mutual laughter] For me, there was no attitude problem. So I didn't
need an extra push in that regard. I push myself, already, pretty crazy.
COHEN: Okay. You also mentioned that your dad was a workaholic. That was your word.
02:12:00HUANG: Yeah, he was traveling a lot. Even when we were living in Beijing again,
he was always working in some other provinces and cities and Shanghai. He was
COHEN: I wonder whether that was a trait that you inherited or not. Do you think
you do the same thing?
HUANG: I think a little bit. Yeah, I think I consider myself--not these days,
anymore, but when I was a student in high school or university or graduate
school-- Basically, once I set my goal, I will just do everything I can to
achieve it. And I always feel panicked or uneasy if I find I have nothing to do.
02:13:00I like to be busy.
COHEN: Has having children changed that for you?
HUANG: A little bit, yeah. Yeah, I'm definitely not my father in terms of the
relationship with the kids [Matthew Huang and Samuel Huang]. I think I spend a
lot more time with my kids now than he used to with me.
Also, slowly, I realized once I worked on something-- For example, I set up my
lab and worked on a project that I picked. "This lab would be the only lab in
02:14:00the world to work on this subject." Then it seemed that working like crazy
didn't really get things done as expected. Sometimes it's a matter of time.
Sometimes it's being patient. The result will come. When the situation is not
mature yet, no matter how hard you work, it's not going to get done.
In a way, I'm working on stuff that is, you could say, not as competitive, so I
don't have to really work twenty-four hours a day so that if I don't work that
way, then somebody else is going to find something. We are not working on those
kinds of projects. At this point it's either I'm going to make it this way or
02:15:00it's going to be too late for me to work on something else. So I've been
relaxing a little bit more than before.
COHEN: Okay. You mentioned that your wife [Chen Ruo Ping] is also a scientist.
What does she do?
HUANG: She was, as I said, in the same CUSBEA [China-U.S. Biochemistry
Examination and Application] student exchange program with the U.S., so she had
a very similar background as I had. She spent a year in that Guangzhou [English
Language] Center, and then she came to the U.S. to do graduate school in
02:16:00biochemistry also--same program. She spent a longer time doing her Ph.D., maybe
seven years, but she had two kids during that period. Then she did a postdoc at
the Salk Institute [for Biological Studies], and then she went to a local
company called Vical [Incorporated] for two or three years. Then she felt that
the work there wasn't that challenging intellectually, so she called up a
friend, a colleague who used to be at Salk at the same lab. That colleague had
just started a company called Arena [Pharmaceuticals], also in San Diego. She
felt that a start-up company was more exciting and more challenging and [would
02:17:00have] more financial payoff in the end, so she joined that company. That's where
she is now, and she's doing pretty well there.
She is pretty good in what she does. She is a very good scientist. But we have
felt that there's no way she is going to pursue an academic job.
HUANG: Just because it's going to be too demanding on the family. So even though
she's very smart and very good, she is more into the family.
COHEN: Well, this actually brings up one of the questions that I ask everyone,
02:18:00which is, there's a big difference in graduate school and in postdocs--about
half of the people are women. But when you look at the academic centers, the
universities, it's about 5 percent.
HUANG: Is that right? Five percent?
COHEN: Yeah, it's very low.
HUANG: Actually, in our institute, there are a lot more.
COHEN: Well, it's interesting because--
HUANG: Especially in science, right? I don't think in history or in literature.
COHEN: In science, yeah. It varies from institution to institution, but it's
pretty low. So one of my questions is, what happens to the women? In your
family, it sounds like the two of you kind of made a decision that she shouldn't
go that route.
HUANG: Yeah. She probably doesn't want to go [that route] herself. She wasn't
02:19:00that motivated to go in the beginning. I have met other women scientists who
were much more determined to want to be an academic, sometimes even more
determined than their husbands.
But that, usually, is a personality issue. You probably noticed this also, that
when you have a strong husband, generally the wife is less dominant and more
family oriented rather than career oriented. That's how you can have a family
between the two. There's somehow natural selection to find each other
02:20:00attractive. This is complementary. Whereas two career-motivated persons-- To
have a family is going to be very tough. That's why you either find this family
has a strong, dominant husband or a very strong, dominant wife. So what I've
noticed is there are families where the wife is a professor--sometimes even the
husband also is a professor--but even in that case when the wife is a professor,
the wife is usually dominant in that relationship. And I think this has a lot to
do with personality.
COHEN: So in your family, I take it you're the dominant one?
COHEN: So how does the work of the family divide up?
02:21:00HUANG: The work is divided. I think I'm more into mechanical things, like cars.
Then my wife would take care of bills and money issues--financial things,
investments--which I'm not so much interested in, and also general housecleaning
and cooking. When she does the cooking, then I usually do the dishwashing.
COHEN: How about with the kids--the taking to school and taking to lessons?
HUANG: Taking to school I usually do in the morning. That's now what's going on.
02:22:00Before I took them to school in the morning, and then she [brought] them home in
the afternoon, because I usually work later. Now it's going to be still this
case, except now her parents [Chen Xing Qiu and Ye Ying Geng] are here, so the
kids can go home right after school--about three o'clock in the afternoon--by bus.
COHEN: Are they here permanently?
HUANG: No, just for one year or so, half a year.
HUANG: So that's how we divide it. I would say she does a lot more housework
than I do.
COHEN: Okay. Some of the things that you said you liked to do when you were a
02:23:00kid, like painting and different sports things, do you do those things still? Do
you paint, for example?
HUANG: No, I don't paint anymore. I do sports a lot. I play tennis at least once
or twice a week. I play in the San Diego local tennis league. I 'm a level 4 .5
or 5 player. Two months ago I hurt my ankle during a league match, so I haven't
played for the last two months. About a year ago I started playing golf. I enjoy
that a lot, and I think I'm picking up golf very fast. It's because I do well
02:24:00[that] I enjoy doing it. So golf and tennis are the two things I'm doing.
Painting, basically, is going to take a lot of time, and I don't see where it's
going to lead--what's the purpose of doing it. If it's just for relaxing, then
I'd rather go do some sports. Otherwise, I like to do things that are going to
be enjoyable and also do some good for my body or whatever. When I was painting,
my goal was to become a professional or something. Once that dream is done, then
COHEN: Away it went.
02:25:00HUANG: No more. So unless in the future, after I retire and have got more time--
Then I may paint. But I'm not going to just paint for the sake of painting.
Probably I'm going to paint and then this painting's going to be for something,
either for sale or for exhibition. Yeah, I'm just not going to paint for myself
COHEN: Well, you had mentioned earlier that you thought there was a relationship
between art and math. One of the things that I think about is that in order to
really be a good scientist, you have to be creative.
HUANG: Right, I think that's very true. I think that people with artistic talent
02:26:00are generally thinking in a more creative way and also doing things in a more
creative fashion. They do not like to do very detailed, routine kinds of tasks.
Even in painting, there are two different kinds of painting, especially in
Chinese painting: There is this kind of more artistic but less detailed type of
painting. Then there is this very craftsmanlike type of painting where every
hair is being drawn; if you have ten thousand hairs, it's going to take ten
thousand brushes to do it. Whereas the other type-- Just one brush. That's your
02:27:00hair. It's done. I like this more wild type of painting. I don't like the other
type, which is craftsman type.
In my way of doing science, I also do not like to do the work that's going to
fill in the details for some existing topic; somebody has opened up the field
and I go in and just do some minor things to make the picture more complete. I'd
rather do something that I initiated, so I [can] take credit for it--something
new, something that has not been done before. That gets me motivated to do it.
In fact, that's what I have been doing since graduate school. The first project
02:28:00was like that. I felt very excited about the idea and pursued it for two years.
Even though it didn't pan out, I still kept that kind of work habit or something.
COHEN: That was the RNA?
HUANG: That was the RNA. Of course, for finishing the degree's sake, I did
something just for the sake of doing it to get a paper out. So I did that. Then
during the postdoc period-- First, on entering the lab, I took a project that
was given to me, so that had not too much to do with my interest or not. Just
the lab wanted to do it, so I did it. But I thought, "This has a good chance of
not working," so I thought of something that I could do, and then I did it. So
02:29:00two ideas, and they both worked. That led to two papers from the postdoc.
Then after I started my lab here, the general direction I still followed, which
is to clone and study the proteins which can bind to the Rb tumor suppressor--
At the time that I started, none of them had been isolated, although they had
been proven to be present. But one needs to clone them, so that's what I started
doing. And I, indeed, cloned several genes. One of them was particularly
interesting for the structure and I thought that one was really the [one the]
02:30:00protein people were looking for. Then it turned out there were other people who
cloned something which is [the thing] people were looking for--that turned out
to be the correct thing--the E2F. So my thing didn't turn out to be that protein
which I was expecting. But it has, itself, some interesting characteristics
which I think are going to be interesting or important. So I went ahead and just
focused my lab working on this gene.
COHEN: Which gene is that?
HUANG: This is the RIZ, the zinc finger gene. And pretty much, I do not have
02:31:00much interaction with the rest of the field who works on E2F, so I am pretty
much in my own little world of this gene, which I cloned, patented, and tried to
make a name [for myself] by working with this. So that is [what] we have been
doing for the last eight years--all around this gene and the family members of
this gene. When we discovered this gene, we also discovered a new family, a new
protein motif. So a number of things are exciting about this.
In the beginning we didn't know what this gene was in terms of its role in
02:32:00tumorigenesis. We were still pursuing its interaction with the Rb protein,
although at the time the Rb function was pretty much thought to be mediated by
this E2F protein that other labs have cloned. So they were the dominant ideas:
the Rb and E2F. And for RIZ to somehow play a role in Rb function-- We're still
saying there is a role for RIZ. However, it has been very difficult to establish
that role. I think it may have something to do with our protein being present in
very, very low amounts in the cell. It's very difficult to work with: it's a
02:33:00very large protein, and we're really lacking a lot of reagents that can get
something done easily. So the role in Rb is still not clear at this point.
But slowly, gradually, we realized another aspect of this gene could be even
more interesting. That is, we want to establish RIZ as, itself, an important
tumor suppressor gene. And that turned out to be the case, slowly. We now really
have some solid evidence to say, "This is an important tumor suppressor." The
02:34:00papers are being published at this moment for the final evidence to come out.
Before this we had published papers in Cancer Research, JBC [Journal of
Biological Chemistry], to suggest such a role in tumor suppression. But those
papers did not have the solid, convincing evidence that the field was going to
accept this concept.
COHEN: Now, one of the things you gave me to read--I think the title of it was
"The Yin and the Yang"-- Is that the article that you're talking about that's
going to come out?
HUANG: No, that was a review paper just summarizing what we had published before.
COHEN: Oh, okay.
HUANG: So that one doesn't really have-- You know, all the existing literature
02:35:00right now on RIZ--and what we have published-- None of those have the missing
genetic data that people are looking for to say whether this is a tumor
suppressor or not. What we have now is the data, which we are submitting right
now. One of them, I think, is in press in collaboration with another scientist,
where we found indeed that RIZ is mutated in human colon cancer and gastric
cancer. We also have found this mutation in human non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Furthermore, we have done the knockout mice; we inactivated RIZ1, and these mice
02:36:00That should convince other people, and that should make our life a little bit
easier--to go out and say why we are studying this gene. Before I had some
difficulty justifying-- You know, "Why are you studying this? You haven't shown
it's important or anything."
COHEN: Well, you had said just a few minutes ago that you are doing something
that no one else is doing in the world, and that kind of brings up the whole
question of competition in the sciences. It sounds like you're not really
competing with anybody at the moment, but in a lot of areas there's tremendous
02:37:00competition to get work done, to publish, to be first. Did you just fall into
something that isn't competitive, or is it your nature not to want to be in a
HUANG: Actually, my nature is I like to compete. That is how I ended up in this
postdoc lab doing the Rb stuff. At that time the Rb field was very competitive.
The lab I was in was one of the three labs that cloned this gene, so you can
imagine all these labs were competing with one another to do this work. I wasn't
afraid of that, and I did it pretty much in a timely fashion.
It's kind of interesting you mentioned competition. Both of my papers [were
competing with] similar papers published from other groups publishing about the
same time. The EMBO [European Molecular Biology Organization] paper came out
02:38:00when another lab from Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory] had a similar paper in
EMBO. And then my paper in Nature [S. Huang et al., 1991. A cellular protein
that competes with SV40 T antigen for binding to the retinoblastoma gene
product. Nature 350:160-62.] was also either followed or [came out] about the
same time as another paper from Harvard Medical School that was published in
Cell. So you can see my postdoc work was competitive work.
Then once I started the lab, the work I started doing was also competitive,
which was to clone the proteins that Rb can bind to. Our Nature paper
demonstrated such proteins exist in the cell, and now it's a question of
studying what they are. So that was basically what everybody in this Rb field
02:39:00was doing--to clone those proteins. And now there must be like forty proteins
that have been identified to bind to Rb. So you can say that field was also
The reason that I ended up not competing is because the gene that I cloned has
turned out to be something that nobody else is working on. I feel that it's an
interesting gene and has some potential to be important, so I think it's worth
it to devote my effort to work on this gene. Compared to working on E2F, for
example, which would be a hot topic, competitive, because a lot of people are
02:40:00going to work on that--it's obviously important--I do not feel that the
potential reward for me would be greater than if I stay with my own gene. Why?
Because this, again, goes to the question of doing work just to fill in the
details. Basically, the guy has cloned E2F1. So if I didn't clone it and I
started working on it, there's no way that--there could be a small chance that I
could do something great--I will overtake the original discoverer of E2F. Most
likely, that is not going to happen. So no matter how many good papers I can get
02:41:00from this, in terms of your accomplishments in the history point of view, fewer
people are going to remember, you know, one of the hundred people who worked on
E2F to add something to this story.
[END OF TAPE 3, SIDE 1]
HUANG: So, always, the guy who cloned E2F is going to take all the credit.
For example, the p53 work: The guys who discovered p53, Arnold Levine and David
Lane, are going to claim all the credit for p53. Eventually, if there's going to
be a Nobel Prize awarded for p53, they are the people who are going to get it.
02:42:00However, how many people work on p53? Every week there are like seventy papers
published on p53. There are all these great scientists who actually made their
name working on p53 by discovering various aspects of p53 function, but still,
they are not at the same level as the guys who initially discovered it, even
though these people may not have contributed as [much] as some of the later
people in terms of studying how p53 works. But still, you view them differently.
So they are not on the same level.
COHEN: So how important is it for you to get that recognition? Is that what it's
02:43:00about, or is it about doing something different? Or both?
HUANG: Yeah, I think it's doing something important [so] that you can be
recognized as somebody special and to try to be in an important position--as
important as possible. When you are young, you shouldn't go for the safe way of
pursuing things. The less risk you take, the less reward you are going to get.
It's very similar to the stock market. And I'm the adventurous type, the
artistic type, the creative type. I want to do something that is going to have
02:44:00the potential to be something important. You know, that's a matter of luck. A
lot of these things you don't know when you're starting to do it. You know, this
gene could turn out to be something really not interesting. I could spend all my
life [laughs] chasing something not interesting. But at least while you are
working on it, you think there's a good chance there's going to be something
important. And if it's important Imagine if it's like p53, then my position
You have to put yourself in that kind of pursuit to at least have a chance to be
at the top of your profession. You need to work on something that could
02:45:00potentially lead you there. So you don't want to limit yourself this early to
work on something safe but you know there's no chance to get to the best,
highest possible place you can be. So that's my motivation--just to be original,
to have a chance to be the best.
And I can see this is a risky approach. A lot of times you feel isolated because
you've got no colleagues to talk to. Nobody's working on this. You have to do it
02:46:00yourself, isolated and ignored. That happens. I sometimes worry about all these
things, but somehow I've stuck it out. So far I think it's going to pay off in
the end. My experience during the past eight years, again, affirms my belief in
this: You pay your dues, you get your rewards.
I thought that I had paid my dues two years ago when my first RO1 was not
renewed and I had a lag period where I only had one grant left. I had to let
everybody in the lab go. Basically, I was alone for a few months.
COHEN: Oh, wow. All the technicians and the--
02:47:00HUANG: Yeah, they were all gone. Then I started from zero again--recruiting and
getting to this point. Even then I told my postdocs that I had to let them go.
At that time I didn't know my grant was going to be turned down. I said I was
still pretty confidant they were going to give us-- I even told them, "If they
turn me down, that means this RIZ gene is going to be really important," [mutual
laughter] based on my belief in this: You suffer first. You're almost bankrupt.
You are at the edge of losing everything. Somehow if you can survive that
period, then things are going to turn around.
COHEN: Now, does this institution--? If something like that happens to you, some
02:48:00places will tide you over for a little while. They'll give you some money to
keep it going.
HUANG: Right, right, they will do that. I really have not been in such a sad
situation that I have had no money at all left. If that happens, I don't know
what's going to happen. Maybe they can give me some money or maybe they won't.
It depends on if they think my project is going to have some future or not.
What happened in my case was I lost one grant, [but] I still had a medium-sized
grant so that I could pay myself and maybe [pay for] some of my supplies. Then
immediately I got another grant.
COHEN: A new RO1?
HUANG: A new RO1. So the old RO1 was not renewed, but in the meantime I had
applied for a new RO1.
02:49:00COHEN: Oh, okay. So it was a short time that--
HUANG: Yeah, it was a relatively short time.
COHEN: Okay. Well, there are so many things that PIs [principal investigators]
have to do nowadays--grant writing being one of them--and I actually wanted to
talk about that just a little bit. How much time does that take for you? Is that
something that eats a lot of your time or not much?
HUANG: Yeah, it's a significant portion of time, I would say. Maybe three months
out of a year.
COHEN: Out of each year? That is a lot of time.
02:50:00COHEN: In terms of the writing-- I know that you said writing has not been a big
problem for you. Actually, I was reading over your Pew [Scholars in the
Biomedical Sciences] materials. I think it was Dr. [John W.B.] Hershey who
actually-- He wrote you a letter of recommendation for the Pew. You probably
haven't seen it--
COHEN: --but I have. [mutual laughter]
HUANG: Yeah, you've seen all the recommendation letters.
COHEN: He said that your writing skills were competitive with the American
students, which I find incredibly impressive, because writing in another
language-- And especially the difference between-- You know, when you have
languages of two different alphabets, it's pretty difficult.
02:51:00HUANG: Right. I don't know. I have seen, now, many Chinese postdoc students who
study here, and I've thought their writing was very poor even compared to my own
writing. I can see that for most Chinese students, the postdocs, it is a big
problem in terms of writing. Few of them can write a grant proposal or
fellowship by themselves.
COHEN: Can you do it yourself?
HUANG: I did it. Of course, I did my fellowship writing as a postdoc myself. I
even wrote a review for the professor, even though we coauthored it. But I wrote
02:52:00it. So I can say, I think, that after graduate school, my writing was already
competitive. Then it's a matter of when did I achieve that level of
competitiveness. In graduate school, maybe? I don't know. I did write my own
paper for my graduate work, and John Hershey helped in editing it. I find his
writing very helpful, and it's much better than [laughs] mine. I learned a great
deal from that.
COHEN: Do you need any editorial help at this point?
HUANG: At this point?
02:53:00HUANG: Rarely. The [Burnham] Institute actually gives us $1,000 each year to
seek professional editing service for our papers and stuff. I did it once with
one of the review papers, and I didn't particularly find them to be very
helpful. It's mostly grammar type of changes. Whereas in our writing, I think
[what's] more important is how to make the idea flow more clearly, make the text
more easily understood, or make the sentence read more smoothly or something.
Some kind of grammar type of correction is not going to really drastically
improve the paper that much. So I wasn't that enthusiastic sending the paper
02:54:00out, even though I had this money which I'd better use. Otherwise--
COHEN: They take it back.
HUANG: They take it back, right. So I don't find that too useful. Whereas it
could be very useful for an experienced, very good scientist with a good writing
style to actually help to correct or edit.
COHEN: Well, the last thing about the grants that I kind of wanted to explore
with you is, there's an uncertainty which all scientists live with and which you
actually had to face once, which is not having any money or enough money.
COHEN: How do you handle the uncertainty?
02:55:00HUANG: That is an issue my wife always argues with me about. [mutual laughter]
"Your job is so insecure. You'd better move to a safer place." Again, as I have
mentioned, I want to put myself into a situation where I can do the best. My
goal is not just to get the grant money. My goal is to do good science, top
science. Then the money will come. Whereas if I chase money, then I really need
to worry about it all the time and then my science actually will suffer.
There are really two ways of doing science, biomedical work, these days. Most
02:56:00people are doing it by chasing money, regardless of the topic. So a lab may have
three grants. The three grants are on different subjects. They were written
because they think it's going to get them money. The three things are not that
related--maybe somehow indirectly related--and none of them may be that unique
or creative. And maybe they're all competitive, because to work on something
that other people have done, especially if some dominant figure in the field has
done something-- You come in to work on some aspect of it, generally, you will
be favored, at least by the dominant guy. He sees all these people working on
02:57:00his subject and building his own story. That's something I'd like to see for my
own subject [mutual laughter], so I can feel that. That's something I don't want
to do--to do something just for the sake of getting money.
So my dream is to establish my own topic. Once I establish it to be so
important, then I don't have to worry about grant money anymore. Think about if
you're in a position like some of the very big scientists. They don't worry
about money. Money will flow to them.
COHEN: It is harder, though, to sell the NIH [National Institutes of Health] on
02:58:00a new area, because they like a lot of supporting data--
HUANG: That's right.
COHEN: --in order to fund-- In fact, they pretty much want the study done before
they fund it.
HUANG: Right, right, right. That's why in the past seven or eight years we have
been kind of struggling with grants, since we haven't really opened up this area
to say, "Oh, this is clearly important. There is no question you should fund
this." But I think now it's going to turn around.
COHEN: Well, how important are the alternate sources, like, for instance, the
Pew [Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences] money, which you didn't have to wait
02:59:00for the NIH for?
HUANG: Yeah, the Pew is important. Actually, we started this knockout project
with the Pew money. Without the Pew money, it was probably going to be a little
bit more stretching, but we would probably have done it anyway, regardless of
whether we had the money or not. But having the money certainly helps. I think
in terms of money, the Pew money wasn't really such a big plus for the lab. You
know, it's not that much money.
COHEN: It's not a lot?
HUANG: Yeah. I think what it does to somebody like me who is working on some new
03:00:00area that is kind of isolated-- This Pew award gives you the additional
confidence that you know you're onto something important. You have been
partially recognized. Not fully recognized, but you know that somebody is
recognizing this as being important. They think you can do it. So that helps you
to stick with the plan, just go for it, and ignore all the criticisms. Without
the Pew, you probably will start to doubt yourself, even though you consider
yourself self-confident. But confidence also needs cultivating. It needs
feedback. So we occasionally should get some positive feedback. I think in that
03:01:00regard, it helps you raise your perspectives. Once you view yourself as [being]
among the best scientists, then you should ask, "Are you doing work that
justifies you being in that group? What kind of work are you doing?"
COHEN: So there's some prestige associated with the award.
HUANG: Right, right, right.
COHEN: Well, most of the scholars that I have interviewed before talked about
how nice the meetings were; of course, I hadn't experienced one until just last
week. The meetings are very good from a-- Well, they're very pleasant for one thing.
COHEN: But it's also not very often that you get to go to a multidisciplinary conference.
03:02:00HUANG: That's right. You don't usually go-- In a way, you learn, maybe, all
kinds of different things that get different perspectives. It's helpful in that
regard, especially when you are starting out. You haven't really a fixed idea on
what you want to do, and your attitude is still trying to learn something new.
That's going to be very helpful.
But once you are at the point that you're pretty much satisfied with what you
are doing and you have enough things to worry about, you don't want to get
laughter] I see people going to these meetings, and generally they are just
pretty absorbed with their own interest. So they still just like to listen to
03:03:00the talks that they have some interest in. Whereas some other talks that they
have no idea what's there, they even don't bother to go to listen. You can tell
from this meeting that a lot of people were not in the meeting room during some
of the talks, right? Maybe half of us go to play somewhere.
HUANG: Yeah, right. So I've gradually found the meetings to be this way. Even
though some meetings are broad topics, people still go just for their own little
field. Students may be more broadly interested. For a scientist, to be good at
what he is doing, to know more doesn't really help. Knowledge is not necessarily
a good thing. [mutual laughter]
HUANG: It kills creativity.
03:04:00COHEN: Okay. Well, we touched on the grant issue, but there are many things that
PIs have to do. Besides grant writing, many have to teach. Now, you mentioned
that up until recently there was no formal affiliation with the University [of
California, San Diego]. But now some people from here are actually teaching
classes over there.
COHEN: Do you have any teaching responsibilities?
HUANG: No, I don't have [any] at the moment. Maybe in the future. I don't know.
COHEN: Is that something you would want to do or--? You know, some people wish
it would go away, and other people like it.
HUANG: Yeah, I hope that I don't have to teach. I don't really have the
03:05:00motivation to teach. I'd rather get my work done. Yeah, I'm pretty much one
directional, focused, once I set a goal. If this is the work I do, I'll pretty
much do this. It's very hard for me to enjoy other things if that thing is not
really related to this. Teaching is, from the students' perspective, of course,
very important. But for the teachers, they are basically just donating their
time. They may learn something also, but mostly they are contributing something.
And I don't know what's the motivation for people who want to teach. I think
03:06:00educating youth, they enjoy doing it. I'm naturally not a good teacher, I think.
HUANG: I'm kind of impatient. Also, I think I'm not very good at explaining
complicated things in simple ways that other people can understand easily. You
know, you can see I interact with my postdocs all the time, and I'm not teaching
in a class type of way, but you can call that, also, teaching.
HUANG: Informal, yeah. And I think sometimes I don't do it very well.
COHEN: Do you have graduate students or just postdocs in your lab?
03:07:00HUANG: Just postdocs in the lab.
COHEN: Well, I want to come back in a little while to your lab and how you run
it, but let's move along with these PI responsibilities for the moment. What
about paper writing? How much of your time does that take up?
HUANG: Nowadays my focus is to get all these papers published. It's been my
full-time job almost. Every day I will do some writing on papers and also, of
course, some lab work, which is mostly designing type of work. I have to worry
03:08:00about what the technician will do. Besides that, I'll mostly write papers.
COHEN: If you could just describe, maybe a little bit, the process that you go
through in writing papers--
HUANG: Well, we first have data--generate it--and then we make the figures. Then
we'll write the results and the procedures, the introduction, discussion. Once
you get used to it, it seems not so difficult. You can even copy from your old
03:09:00papers some of the same paragraphs. For example, the procedures: the same
procedure was used before and you use it here and just copy them, paste them,
and stuff. You can generate a paper pretty quickly that way.
COHEN: Who writes? Do the postdocs write, or do you write?
HUANG: It depends. For some postdocs, if they can write, they do. If they
cannot, I will do it. And even when they do, they will usually just give me a
draft to work on it substantially. Mostly they will get the results written down
03:10:00and they will make the figures. Sometimes I do it myself. And it depends on how
involved was the postdoc in terms of carrying on this project. Sometimes many,
many persons are involved in the project. Like these knockout mice took five
years. The postdoc who did the initial work had long left, and then, of course,
I had to be the person to write the thing. [For] some other project, the postdoc
had the idea to work on it and basically carried it by himself all along. Then
it's a good idea to let him do everything.
COHEN: Do you like writing for publication or is it a chore?
HUANG: I think I like it if I have something to write about. [mutual laughter]
COHEN: It always helps if you have something to say.
03:11:00HUANG: Yeah, if you don't have something, it's not good. Now, comparing
benchwork or writing, at least at this moment, I don't miss benchwork. In the
beginning of my lab I was working a lot. Of course, that's natural; I didn't
have much data to write about. But now I have more data than I can write, and to
get all this published is more important to me at this point than generating
more data, because the data we already have is so important that it's going to
be very essential to have them published in the best possible way. So I realize
03:12:00that, and I'm willing to spend whatever is necessary to do it.
COHEN: Do you have any administrative responsibilities?
HUANG: Not really. That's what's pretty nice here: the bureaucracy--they try to
limit that. PIs generally do not have real responsibility other than running
their labs. Some PIs may run a facility, like a sequencing facility or a mouse
facility, which not every PI will do. At least for me, I haven't gotten involved
with any of these activities. Once I ran a seminar series when I hosted speakers
03:13:00and invited speakers. Other than that, right now I'm basically just [running] my lab.
COHEN: It's interesting because you are at a private institute, which is, I
imagine, in some ways like Cold Spring Harbor--
HUANG: Right, exactly.
COHEN: --like Wistar [Institute].
HUANG: Same outfit.
COHEN: It's a different life than people who are at academic institutions,
because most of the time they have a lot of teaching to do and they're drowning
in administrative committees and things other than that. It sounds as if you're
a little more able to devote yourself to the science, being that you're not at
an academic institution. Is that a fair assessment?
HUANG: Yes, I would say it's true. Yeah, I would say we spend more time on our
03:14:00science than professors in a university. Well, I think it depends on individual
professors. Some professors spend a lot more time teaching; some spend very
little. It varies, especially in some medical schools. All they teach is one or
a few classes of medical students. So yeah, it's true, generally speaking. We
definitely have more time devoted to science.
COHEN: Is there any disadvantage to this kind of a situation as opposed to a university?
HUANG: In what respect a disadvantage?
COHEN: Well, I don't know. Prestige, maybe? Is it more prestigious to be a
professor at Harvard [University] or not? I don't know that it is. I'm just
throwing that out as a possibility.
03:15:00HUANG: You know, that is really not the issue here--to be in a prestigious
position. The bottom line is how is your work there. You can be a professor at
Harvard, and your work is so-so. And what's your prestige? Your prestige--
There's always "Who are you talking to?" If you are talking to somebody who has
no real education--people outside of the field--if you tell them you're a
professor at Harvard, you may get more respect. But once you are in the group of
people that really count--you know, who value your work--then it doesn't matter anymore.
COHEN: Now, what about-- For example, in academic institutions--many of them,
03:16:00although not all of them--eventually, you can get tenure, which won't do you
much good if you don't have grant money in terms of doing your research. But at
least you won't starve. Is there any kind of situation like that here--that
after a certain amount of time or a certain number of publications, you have
HUANG: Not really. Here, everybody is dependent on their grants. They don't
really have tenure--that they'll keep you even if you don't have money. That
doesn't exist. If that is a concern--that is, if you're not doing well--I think,
then you'd better think of some safer way. For example, if someone's project is
03:17:00going downhill and they realize it's not going to get them somewhere and then
they're also too old to start something new, then I think it's better to go to a
place and get a position that's more secure.
Whereas for young people who start out, this should not be their number one
concern. They should consider what kind of institution will help them to do
their work the best, to help them be successful. They should go to that place
regardless of whether they're at universities or institutes or [there's] tenure
or no tenure. Once they are in there, if they're successful, then it doesn't
matter anymore. Once you are number one, then tenure and money will come to you,
03:18:00even if you don't want them. [mutual laughter] So that's your goal. Whereas if
you start out with your goal being tenure, then probably your science is not
going to-- [laughs] Because your goal is pretty minimal, right? If that's your
goal, you're going to end up in a state university, maybe, instead of here. And
then you could be killed that way.
COHEN: Literally or scientifically?
HUANG: Scientifically, not literally. For example, I had the opportunity to go
to the University of Florida, but I decided to stay here. Then a friend of mine
went to Gainesville--the University of Florida--a couple of years later. He went
there as an assistant professor, and after two or three years he had to quit
03:19:00because he was never able to get a grant to fund his work. So he quit.
COHEN: Was that because of his work or because of being in Gainesville, Florida?
HUANG: I don't know. That's something that's hard to tell. Maybe it was his
work. He's also the type of person who would rather do something important and
unique even if he has to lose everything than to work on something safer.
Indeed, he is working on something very new and not that accepted, so the
reviewers were very critical of his stuff. So he just couldn't get his funding.
But this, again, maybe has something to do with the wish of God. If he would
03:20:00have come here, maybe he would have run into a different reviewer or something,
because here, they know you're under big pressure to get funded, whereas in
Gainesville, they expect you to have some state money or something. Here, I
either have this grant or I die. There you may be expected to at least survive
by some way. So you're at less risk there than here, but then things also don't
come your way. Whereas here, when you're faced with no choice, somehow it will
For example, if I had decided to go to Florida, I probably would not have gotten
into the Pew Scholars [in the Biomedical Sciences] program, because I don't
think that Florida was invited to nominate somebody there. I was lucky also,
03:21:00[because] my nomination was the first time this institute was asked to nominate
a candidate to this program.
COHEN: So you kind of blazed the trail for everybody? Has there been another one
here since then?
HUANG: Yes, there's another one that's currently-- They're going to meet in
March. So there are two right now, but we got another one nominated this year,
also, who for sure will get in.
COHEN: Okay. You talked a little about how you tend to work a little bit later
in the day. How do you juggle all these things that you have to do at the same
time? You know, you're writing grants, you're trying to get papers published,
you're trying to run your lab, you have to supervise the technicians, you have
03:22:00to design the experiments for the technicians.
HUANG: How? Well, there are at least eight or ten hours a day, and definitely
you can do a couple of hours. First thing in the morning I go supervise the
technicians, check with them what they have for today. I have two technicians
right now. I used to not have technicians, but then I realized that it's
beneficial to have some technicians, especially when I'm not doing a lot of
experiments. I can count on the technicians to do my ideas. Whereas to tell
03:23:00postdocs to do things all the time-- So I check with them and see what they have
and tell them what they should do today. Sometimes they have enough to do from
previous experiments, and they just continue. Then there's not much.
I don't deal with postdocs a lot on a daily basis.
COHEN: They're on their own?
HUANG: They're on their own. Then I come back to the office--write papers or do
some computer work or research. A lot of my work right now involves database
analysis. Since we have this family of genes, I can discover new genes just by
database searching. So I do that and then paper writing. Then it's about time to
go home. [mutual laughter]
03:24:00COHEN: So what time do you leave here most days?
HUANG: Now I'm pretty on time--about six o'clock--because my parents-in-law are
here. If I want to have a family dinner, I'd better go home by six. Otherwise, I
will just eat leftovers. [mutual laughter] That sometimes happens if I have
something really late. Then I don't usually work any more.
COHEN: That's it?
HUANG: Yeah. After dinner I find myself not comparable to when I was young. When
I was young I could work until eleven thirty and still have a nice, sound sleep.
03:25:00Nowadays it seems like if I write or read too heavily, then I lose sleep.
COHEN: Well, what kinds of things do you do in the evening?
HUANG: Mostly reading papers. The magazines I will carry home--
COHEN: You mean journal papers?
HUANG: Journals, yeah.
COHEN: Not the newspaper?
HUANG: Not the newspaper. The newspaper-- I have some in the morning.
COHEN: That'll disturb your sleep--reading the newspaper.
HUANG: Oh, really? [mutual laughter]
COHEN: Well, there's all the awful things going on in the world.
HUANG: Well, yeah. But the San Diego Union t-Tribune] paper we have doesn't have
too much international stuff. So pretty much it's reading some light stuff.
COHEN: Well, there are two other things that eat up people's time a lot. One is
03:26:00the Internet; a lot of people spend a huge amount of time on the Internet. The
other is television. Do you spend time on--?
HUANG: No, we spend very little time on television, even though I enjoy it. My
wife hates it. Purely, I enjoy sports, so I sometimes watch a lot of sports on
television, but that is mostly on weekends. On weekdays we pretty much do not
have television on for the children's sake. We don't want them to watch TV, and
that's why we're not having too much TV at night. The kids will do homework. On
the weekends I sometimes watch a little bit of tennis when there's a tournament.
03:27:00[END OF TAPE 3, SIDE 2]
COHEN: I think we were talking about tennis on the weekends.
HUANG: Yeah. So for me, I spend a lot of time on sports. On weekends I usually
play two hours each day and sometimes I watch some television, but not a lot.
Generally, we try not to watch television at home. We still don't have a very
fancy television set.
COHEN: What about the Internet?
03:28:00HUANG: The Internet we do quite a lot. The kids [Matthew and Samuel Huang], my
wife [Chen Ruo Ping] all do it. My wife usually works on the stock
market--analyzing the companies and stuff. For me, I usually don't work on the
Internet because I think it's pretty slow at home, whereas here, it's much
faster. Sometimes I read a little bit of the news magazines on the Internet, and
03:29:00the kids just play games. So generally there's not too much. I sometimes take my
kids to golf practice or tennis. And my older son was taking piano lessons once
COHEN: Do you work on their schoolwork with them?
HUANG: Not myself. Mostly my wife. They have a Wednesday folder that parents are
supposed to look at and check. That's what my wife does.
COHEN: How old are your children?
HUANG: Ten and nine. They're about one year and a half apart.
COHEN: Oh, wow. That's hard when they're really little, but now it's not so hard.
HUANG: Right, they can play with each other.
03:30:00COHEN: Okay. Well, going back just a little bit to your lab- - You know, most
people learn how to run their lab from having been in someone else's lab, and
you had two very different experiences. So how do you--? I mean, do you have
birthday parties in your lab?
HUANG: No, no.
COHEN: How does your lab work?
HUANG: I think things changed from the beginning to now. Right now I think the
lab is-- I hope the postdocs are self-motivated and work hard, of course. I give
03:31:00some ideas, some little guidance, but hopefully the postdocs will just be able
to carry on something by themselves. And I wish that they will work on something
that is their idea. At least, they should feel that it is their idea. I didn't
used to do it this way. I used to just give the postdocs what I thought was
important and just let them do it. Now I realize that's not the best approach.
People are much more motivated when they are working on something they take
credit for. I learned that, and I try to do it this way now. That really
released myself from a lot of work too; I can spend more time on my own work
03:32:00instead of talking to them all the time. We just meet once a week to discuss
what they have done and what their plan is, so there's not too much daily stuff
unless they want to show me something. For technicians that's different.
COHEN: What kind of a boss are you?
HUANG: What kind of boss? I think I'm pretty fair and businesslike. I don't get
too much involved with personal relationships. Just be professional, I think. I
just try to be like that.
03:33:00COHEN: Because some people have said--of course, if you don't get involved in
it, it's not a problem--that one of the hardest things about becoming a PI
[principal investigator] was having to sort of learn how to manage people,
because you're not trained for that in your own training and then suddenly, you
have all these people.
HUANG: Right. How to manage people-- Yeah, I think that's a learning process.
I'm probably better than I was before. I used to easily get impatient and talk
03:34:00in a nasty way, not nice, and make the postdocs feel unhappy. I guess I felt
pressure from my mood. I think that was probably not a good idea. So I have
learned to help them more. When they have problems-- Don't try to blame them.
Try to be helpful in terms of solving it. Just be more calm. Of course, I also
learned that you need to manage different people differently. Some people may
handle your temper a little more. Then you can be more [mutual laughter] liberal
with that. Some people are more sensitive. Then you have to be careful.
COHEN: Well, life is a learning process.
03:35:00HUANG: Right, I think it's a learning process. And you learn from your mistakes.
I think that's the best way to learn, actually. If somebody tells you how to do
it, you're probably still going to make some mistakes anyway.
COHEN: Well, the irony of being a scientist is that you don't get trained for
any of the things that you have to do after you become a scientist. I mean, most
people don't write a grant until they become a PI. Depending on where you did
your work, there are some labs where the PI does all the writing, which means
you didn't write until you become the PI. You don't have to manage people or
teach or do any of these other things.
HUANG: That's right. So different labs can really train different people, and
some postdocs, some students, are better qualified for being a scientist than
03:36:00some others. Even though they probably have the same number of Cell papers, that
could be very different. In some labs the postdoc is treated like a technician
and is doing all the work following the boss's idea. Then I don't imagine this
postdoc will become successful as an independent scientist. Whereas a postdoc
from another lab that was totally independent--from writing papers to designing
experiments-- He was already trained this way. He was experiencing being a
professor already, even when he was a student.
COHEN: Well, some of it he didn't experience--you know, grant writing.
HUANG: Well, he might because he might write a fellowship, which is pretty much
similar to a grant.
03:37:00COHEN: Sure. So how prepared did you feel when you--?
HUANG: I was very prepared in terms of pursuing my independent project, in terms
of having independent thinking, in terms of feeling confident that you can do a
lot of the things that the first-class scientists are doing based on the
experience I have. I started my real lab work by working on something that was
my idea, so I never experienced working for somebody and just doing what they
told me to do. I never had any technician type of experience. The only thing
was, in order to finish my degree, I did something that was just for the paper.
03:38:00Then for the postdoc work I was very proud of the fact that my work there was
cutting edge and the ideas were mine. So I felt like I could compete with
anybody, even the best lab in the world. A lot of people may also have the same
thinking. You don't have to be afraid of competition when you start out your new
lab, because you're basically competing with a postdoc in that big professor's
lab, and you can compete with any of those postdocs. So I was feeling pretty
okay to start a position.
03:39:00In terms of writing grants, I think I was also prepared very well since I wrote
my papers. All the papers for my postdoc I wrote--the first-authored ones. Even
my Ph.D. work, the paper, I wrote. John [W.B. Hershey] basically did a lot of
work for the introduction. He changed, substantially, the introduction for that
paper and the way the results were written. But he left the discussion totally
to me, so I pretty much wrote the discussion. I was trained quite heavily in
that regard. In a way, I feel I was better prepared than most people. I can see
how the postdocs were used as technicians in some labs, or the students were
03:40:00used as technicians. So you can have some students with very impressive
publication records that still don't have a clue about how things are done.
COHEN: Yeah, it's actually kind of a disservice to a postdoc to use them as a technician.
HUANG: Yeah, it is. But sometimes you get lousy postdocs that don't have ideas,
and you are left with either this guy who is going to sit there doing nothing or
you tell him to do something. [laughs] You make the best out of the situation,
you know? So if the guy has a very good idea and is very driven and very
enthusiastic about projects, then you should definitely try to avoid telling him
what to do.
03:41:00COHEN: Okay, there's one other thing I'd like to touch on today, and then I
think we'll wrap it up until tomorrow. We talked a little bit earlier about the
gender thing--you know, what happens to women in science. But I wonder if you've
ever encountered any ethnic or racial discrimination or problems in the sciences?
HUANG: Well, a Chinese background is not really a minority in the sciences. You
certainly don't benefit like blacks in terms of getting academic positions. Same
03:42:00thing for the Chinese American students. They have a tough time getting into the
universities. It's reverse--
Otherwise, I think it's mostly natural. I don't feel there is a special
force--that these people have a secret, mutual agreement to discriminate against
some group. If there is some discrimination, it's just being the unavoidable
type of things. Being human. Being natural. That's part of the reason that I
03:43:00want to do something that's either going to be good or-- Maybe I'll get nothing.
I don't want to be mediocre, you know? I feel that being not Caucasian, to
achieve something here, one has to be especially good.
COHEN: If you're not Caucasian?
HUANG: Yeah. Well, if you are a Caucasian, you may be okay with being mediocre
in what you're doing, and still, by playing some politics, you can get along
well with your career or whatever you're doing.
03:44:00For me, at least, I think doing the best science is the only way I can realize
my ambition. In science, basically, it doesn't really matter what your
background is. Your work should speak for itself. But sometimes good work also
03:45:00needs people to help [by] say[ing], "Okay, this work is good." Sometimes you can
do good work and people ignore you.
COHEN: Yeah. That's true.
HUANG: I don't know if that's the case--whether your ethnicity may influence how
your work is being perceived. I don't think that's too important. I think your
work still is the number one thing that's in view. It doesn't matter whether
you're black or whatever--who did the work. If this work is important, it's
going to be realized sooner or later.
COHEN: Well, at a place like this, when you look at the scientists here-- You
03:46:00said there were a lot of women here, I know, but what percent would you say--?
I'm not asking for a scientific statement, but just approximately.
HUANG: I don't really have a-- Maybe 40 percent.
COHEN: Are women?
COHEN: What about by ethnicity? There are lots of Chinese scientists in the
United States, I know that. But--
HUANG: Here we have mostly foreigners.
COHEN: Oh, really?
HUANG: Europeans from Finland, from Sweden, from Germany, from Russia more
recently, and from Spain. From China we have three faculty here. Several from Japan.
COHEN: Are there any black or hispanic--?
03:47:00HUANG: No, I don't think so. There's one from Italy. There's a good mix. There
are some Americans too.
COHEN: Sounds like they're in the minority.
HUANG: Yeah, in terms of number.
COHEN: It's interesting.
HUANG: Foreign and American-- The Americans are the minority, I think.
[END OF TAPE 4, SIDE 1]
[END OF INTERVIEW]
03:48:00COHEN: There were a few things that I wanted to kind of go back and touch on
from yesterday. We talked just a little bit about competition and the fact that
your field-- You're pretty much the only one doing it. But on a more
philosophical level, how do you think competition affects the sciences?
HUANG: It's a good thing in terms of moving a field fast. Once a field is
started by some pioneers, the work can get done really fast. For example, the Rb
field started out with the cloning of a gene by three or four independent
03:49:00groups, so already in the beginning there was big competition. But then the
competition got even more severe once the genes were in hand and many people
started requesting the genes. They [wanted] to get involved. They [wanted] to
work on those. And indeed, the field has moved really fast. There were many
papers published. Many times two or three papers were published on the same
topic with the same kind of conclusions and a similar set of data. I already
mentioned in my case that both of my papers on Rb during the postdoc period were
accompanied by similar papers by other groups. So in a way it's good for this
03:50:00field that lots of activity is going on. People immediately, quickly, learn a
lot of things about this field.
But on the other hand, the really creative work does not result from
competition. The person who's pioneering a field usually does not have any
competition when he is working alone. For example, even for the case of Rb--the
cloning--there was competition. But then figuring out the mechanisms really had
something to do with Professor Ed [ward L.] Harlow's work early on, before Rb
03:51:00was even cloned. He was working on proteins that would bind to the E1A viral
oncogene. Three or four years before the cloning of Rb he had identified a group
of cellular proteins that would bind to E1A. Of course, he had no idea what the
identities of those proteins were. Then all of a sudden, he realized once the
gene for Rb was cloned--the protein product was identified--that one of his
proteins had a very similar size with Rb. So he just tested whether that turned
out to be Rb, and indeed, it was Rb. This opened up the idea that Rb somehow
03:52:00works by binding to proteins. Also, this led to the idea that a viral oncogene
transforms by binding to cellular tumor suppressor genes like Rb and somehow
inactivates the tumor suppressors. That's how maybe they transform.
So this idea really was started out by him working with the E1A binding protein.
At the time he was working on that, really there wasn't much competition and his
work was pretty much ignored. People thought, "Just a whole bunch of proteins
sticking to a viral protein-- What's the significance of that?" Really, he had
no idea. It wasn't until he found one of them as Rb that all of a sudden, every
03:53:00one of these guys became important and people started cloning more and more of
those binding proteins. Indeed, several have turned out to be very important
later on. So you have to give Harlow credit for sticking with his work while
there was no competition. No other people were interested in his stuff. He was
having a tough time, I understand, at the time to continue that line of work. If
it wasn't for Rb coming out at that particular time, he might have had trouble
continuing that line of work. There are many examples like that from
history--creative works that were not generated by competition. Mostly, the real
03:54:00creative work is done by somebody working alone and finding something very
unique that later on turns out to be of some general interest or general importance.
Really, I think competition is not the ideal way of doing science if doing
science is to really be creative. Competition maybe is for the other way of
doing science, which is just to generate data and to get grants. [mutual
laughter] That's a nice way of doing it, because if you go into a competitive
field, the only way that that field can become competitive is because that topic
03:55:00is hot at the moment. So you may have a lot more competition, but because it's
hot, everything you touch should be fundable and should be publishable. So if
you want to get involved in this topic, you can always do something that's going
to be different. Or if they are similar to what other people are doing, it
doesn't matter. You still get your results published, you still get funded. In a
way, it's a more sure way of pursuing things; you know you're going to get
something. Whereas if you work on something nobody's doing, you have no idea in
the end if you're going to get anything out of this. So it's less risky, I would
say, even though you may think it's more risky--you're working in the
03:56:00competitive field; you may get scooped or something.
COHEN: Has that ever happened to you? Because you said your paper came out at
the same time as another paper. Did that scoop you or--?
HUANG: In those two cases that I managed to publish, I didn't get scooped. But I
did get scooped for my third paper out of my postdoc, which was that the E2F is
the Rb binding protein. My paper in Nature had identified a protein that's
46-kilo dalton size in molecular weight that binds for Rb; that was a band in a
gel. We didn't have any idea what this protein was in terms of sequence and
stuff, but that was enough to be published in Nature because it established the
03:57:00concept that cellular proteins exist that bind to Rb.
Now the next question for us was to figure out, what is this protein? At the
time E2F was known, but it wasn't known that it binds to Rb. There were certain
papers published around that time by Joseph R. Nevens's lab in Cell saying that
E2F was released by E1A somehow, that the E2F activity could be regulated by
E1A. E2F has a certain molecular size; they figure it's about 50-kilo dalton. So
I had at the time made a very reasonable guess that E2F looks very much like an
Rb binding protein. "Probably it's the 46 K," I thought. So based on that idea,
03:58:00I made some collaboration with E2F people and, indeed, confirmed that E2F is the
Rb binding protein.
Then we tried to publish that, and we sent it to Nature--the paper. They said
they already had similar papers in press, so they could not take ours anymore.
In the end, we did manage to have our paper published later in the journal DNA
and Cell Biology. So in a way, I was scooped in that instance.
03:59:00COHEN: Well, one of the questions about competition is it does spur people on to
work and to get things done and to try to get the information out in a timely
manner, but it can sometimes, I think, lead to sloppy science in the rush to get
something out. Have you experienced that at all?
HUANG: That really is not the case, I don't think, because sloppy or not, the
conclusion cannot be wrong. If they want to publish something, they must be very
sure about what they are trying to say. Maybe some of the data is not as solid,
04:00:00but in the end, the conclusion should stand. You probably would wish you had
more data to support it, but because of competition, you have to publish now.
But you are still pretty confident that this is going to turn out to be correct.
Indeed, I think in some other instances it has generated some artifacts, like
the BRCA1 field. It was very controversial in terms of where it is located,
what's the size of it, and which band on this gel is the BRCA1 protein. At the
time the gene was cloned, all these tumor suppressor guys switched from Rb to
04:01:00BRCA and started making antibodies, and everyone was trying to publish as
quickly as they could. Then, indeed, there were very different stories. The
papers were published about the same time, but they got very different
conclusions. And somebody must be wrong. [laughs] If they had more time, they
could solve it. But in some ways, they could not wait. And in many cases, to
identify such a protein by antibodies is very difficult. We can speak from our
own experience in terms of identifying the RIZ protein. We had misidentified a
couple before we ran into the real result. So if we are under time pressure and
04:02:00we have to publish, then we may publish something wrong.
COHEN: With regard to the RIZ, which is the work that you've been doing now, for
eight years, you mentioned yesterday that you had very important data that
you're writing up now and getting to publish. I don't know if you want to go on
the record yet, since it's not published, but it will be awhile before this hits
the library shelf. In terms of this work, how is this going to contribute to our
understanding of cancer?
HUANG: Well, right now the field is basically characterizing the cancer genes.
04:03:00We think cancer is caused by mutations in cancer genes. We, indeed, in the past
have identified many of them.
COHEN: In cancer genes or cancer suppressor genes?
HUANG: Cancer genes can be classified into two groups: tumor suppressor genes
and oncogenes. They operate in a yin-yang fashion. For a lab like mine to have a
place in this research, we need to have our own cancer genes instead of other
ways [where] we work on somebody else's cancer genes--BRCA, Rb. I think it's
much more important to come up with our own genes. There still are many, many
04:04:00cancer genes remaining to be discovered, and there are probably novel mechanisms
of tumorigenesis that are going to be discovered because of new genes that are
being discovered. That's our goal: to identify new cancer genes. If we're lucky,
we also can identify new mechanisms of tumorigenesis.
So after six years we have, indeed, solid evidence now that RIZ is a new cancer
gene, and probably it has some novel mechanisms of tumorigenesis we have still
04:05:00not yet figured out. In the meantime, we think we've also identified a family of
cancer genes that's related to RIZ. This family probably has a dozen or so
members. So far only three are characterized, and all three turned out to be
So in a way, we contributed to the cancer research field by adding new members
of cancer genes, but our work really hasn't changed the whole paradigm. The
paradigm is that cancer results from mutations in cancer genes. I think for the
next five or ten years this paradigm will still hold and new discoveries are
04:06:00mainly going to be more discovery of cancer genes. More genes will be
discovered, so eventually we hope we will be able to identify all the genes that
are mutated in cancer. Then we can somehow generate a picture of exactly what's
going on in the cancer cell. Then we may have a handle on the mechanisms as well
as on how to treat them.
COHEN: So these genes that you've identified, are these oncogenes or suppressor genes?
HUANG: These are kind of a unique class of genes. They could be viewed as tumor
suppressor genes. On the other hand, they also encode alternative products that
act sort of like oncogenes. So in this family of genes, one gene gives you at
04:07:00least two products due to two different promoters. The products are basically
identical in their C-terminal part. They differ a little bit at the N terminus
because of this domain that's defining this family--about a hundred amino acid
motif called the PR domain. So you will have a gene that will give you a PR-plus
protein and a PR-minus protein; the only difference is the PR between these two.
But interestingly, the PR-plus form appears to be tumor suppressive, whereas the
PR-minus form is oncogenic. Normally, both products are expressed, so normally
04:08:00there will be a normal balance of the two. But in tumors, this balance was
disrupted by one of the two ways. In the case of RIZ, the PR-plus form was
always lost or mutated and the PR-minus form was always present in tumors.
COHEN: I'm sorry-- If the PR-minus is the tumor suppressive--?
HUANG: No, the PR-plus is the tumor suppressive.
HUANG: Another gene of the family, called MDS1-EVI 1-- Then the PR-minus form
04:09:00was overexpressed in tumors, whereas the PR-plus form was disrupted. So at least
we have two genes like that. In fact, the MDS1-EVI 1 gene was first identified
as an oncogene. It was an oncogene. They didn't know it even existed in this
PR-plus form; they thought this gene just had the PR-minus form. And it was
through our work that we predicted there should be a PR-plus form. And indeed,
COHEN: That's interesting. It's the yin-yang thing again.
HUANG: Yeah, it's a yin-yang thing within one gene. Of course, we can consider
04:10:00the oncogene and tumor suppressor genes-- There's a yin-yang balance there too.
Here, it's kind of unique: within the same gene, you've got the yin-yang there.
COHEN: It's interesting. Well, can you think of potential applications for this?
HUANG: Potential applications-- If gene therapy will work out in the end, if
they can overcome some of the technical difficulties of delivering genes
specifically to the tumors, we might be able to use the PR family genes, RIZ1,
in a gene therapy type of protocol to treat human cancers. We can use RIZ1 this
way--same as we use p53--to do gene therapy of cancer. That's one possibility.
04:11:00The other one could be that we could screen drugs--small compounds--that would
somehow affect the RIZ function or affect the yin-yang balance of RIZ to treat
the cancer using small compounds. We could also maybe develop some compounds
that would activate RIZ1 expression in tumors, because in tumors we see loss of
RIZ1 expression, but the gene in most cases seemed to be intact. Maybe the
promoter for RIZ1 is somehow inactivated by something. So maybe it's possible,
04:12:00if a compound can be identified that can somehow reactivate RIZ1 expression in
tumors. So RIZ1 maybe can be used in that fashion for cancer treatment.
COHEN: Is there any place for screening people for these genes? With the BRCA1
and 2, there are screening tests now. I don't know what you do with the
information once you get it; that's another whole ethical issue. But is that a
possibility with these? Are you not sure?
HUANG: Yeah, this RIZ is maybe a little different from BRCA, at least, [because]
04:13:00they screen normal people for BRCA mutations, because BRCA mutations are present
in the germ line; it's actually passed on. And we don't know if such germ line
types of mutations exist for RIZ, whether there is a cancer type that's familial
cancer and that is caused by RIZ. We don't know that yet. It's possible. We just
don't know at this point. So I don't foresee the screening of normal people for
However, there might be RIZ polymorphisms [such] that one form of RIZ versus the
other--people who carry that one particular form--may be more susceptible to
04:14:00tumor formation. If we can identify what kind of RIZ form they have, then this
may give them some idea of how susceptible they are to certain cancers. We have
some work submitted in that direction. We have actually identified a RIZ
polymorphic allele. We have found that this allele is more popular in
Asians--Koreans and Chinese--versus Caucasians. And we have some evidence that
this allele is a better tumor suppressor allele; it's more popular than the
other ones. So if this one is more popular in Asian populations, we are trying
04:15:00to suggest that maybe that has something to do with the lower tumor incidence in
Asian populations versus Caucasians, which is well known. Most people think that
is due to diet or something. But that may not be the case. Diet may not be the
only thing, is what I think, because they have noticed this difference in tumor
incidence even among Asians living in the U.S.
COHEN: Americanized and eating the junk food that Americans eat?
HUANG: Right, right.
COHEN: That's interesting. Lots of things to think about. Of course, there are
all kinds of social issues that revolve around testing people for predisposition
04:16:00HUANG: Right. Yeah, it's going to need a lot of discussion on the government
level to see what they want to do with all this genomic information.
COHEN: Well, one of the things that I like to talk about is--especially because
yesterday you mentioned fate--sometimes people stumble onto a great discovery by accident.
HUANG: Most of the time that's what happens. [mutual laughter] Discovery is made
COHEN: By serendipity.
HUANG: Yeah, usually the great ones are like that.
04:17:00COHEN: What about in your life?
HUANG: In my life, serendipity-- Well, for the work I did before I became a
professor, I don't think there was any accident involved. It was pretty well
thought out, logical. The first work, the postdoc work, they had identified that
Rb can bind to E1A. I wanted to know what domains of Rb were involved in
binding, so it was just straightforward work--to map the domains. Then the next
thing is-- You know Rb binds to E1A and you think there must be an E1A-like
04:18:00molecule in the cell that binds Rb. So you go ahead and identify that. No big deal.
Now, I think in terms of the RIZ work, there was probably some luck involved. We
gained something, we lost something in this case. We had thought that we were
going to contribute to the Rb work by isolating this RIZ gene, but that has
failed so far. We haven't really contributed much in that regard. However, a
good thing happened: RIZ has turned out to be important in its own right without
having a relation with Rb. In a way, I set out to do the work without even
04:19:00dreaming about [how] I would be able to clone or identify a novel cancer gene. I
was only hoping to get an Rb binding protein and do something in relation to Rb
under the big Rb umbrella. And now I can see that RIZ can, itself, become an
important topic of study and has its own importance and interest and has become
a tumor suppressor.
And the way that I cloned RIZ and found it as a tumor suppressor really is kind
of luck, because normally to clone a tumor suppressor takes more work. It
04:20:00usually involves a large group and is a very labor-intensive type of cloning.
You go from positional cloning. You first identify where you think the tumor
suppressor is on the chromosome and then walk from the site you know into the
region. So typically it has been by positional cloning. That's how Rb was
cloned. That's how BRCA was cloned. It involved so much competition and a lot of
work. That's why when I started my lab, I didn't really dream of cloning such a
gene, because it was just beyond my power to do it. But in the end, it came out
this way. It was better than I hoped.
COHEN: How did it happen? You said it didn't happen in the usual way with this
04:21:00positional cloning. So how did you stumble onto this gene?
HUANG: Oh, well, you clone it because it binds to Rb.
COHEN: So you knew about it?
HUANG: Now, it binds to Rb, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a cancer gene.
HUANG: Just because something binds to Rb doesn't mean-- Now, gradually, piece
by piece, we have realized it may be a cancer gene. How did it come about? The
first thing was, there's a hint because this gene shares a piece of homology
with another gene. That was initially why we called this domain a PR domain. P
04:22:00stands for the other gene, R stands for RIZ. We found this domain, and this
didn't tell us, really, right away whether this was going to be a tumor
suppressor cancer gene, because the other gene was not known to be involved in
cancer. But then we realized this PR motif was present in this cancer gene that
I just told you about--the MDS1-EVI 1 oncogene. That tells you that this RIZ
gene is related to a known cancer gene. So it has the potential to become one
itself, too. Then we started having evidence that in cancer cells, the
expression of RIZ was altered, like I told you. The RIZ1 was always lost and the
RIZ2 was always there. Under normal circumstances for a gene that has only one
04:23:00product, if you find that the product is lost in cancer cells, you would not be
as impressed because it could happen randomly, because cancer cells are known to
be unstable. And if you find your gene product is present in this cell line but
absent in the other cell line, you probably wouldn't pay too much attention to
that. But in our case, the yin-yang phenomenon was quite striking. The RIZ2 is
always present. There was almost like a selection for it to be expressed. Yet
RIZ1 was commonly found [to be] lost. We thought that had some real meaning to
it, and that triggered us to suggest that RIZ1 is a tumor suppressor in that case.
Another piece of serendipity, luck, has to do with the knockouts. In the
04:24:00beginning when we first cloned RIZ, we did not realize there was a RIZ2 product.
We always knew there was this PR-plus form--RIZ1. The short form we hadn't
realized in the beginning, so we had tried to do the knockout the moment we
cloned the gene. We knew the PR motif in this N terminus was important, so we
set out to knock out this motif in particular. Hopefully, this would inactivate
the whole gene. And we designed this targeted strategy without realizing there's
Now it turns out to be that this strategy has turned out to be perfect for our
idea to prove whether RIZ1 loss, but not RIZ2, is going to cause cancer or not,
04:25:00because this targeting strategy turned out to just inactivate RIZ1 without
affecting RIZ2. So we have created a mouse line that mimics the human tumor
situation; these mice do not express RIZ1 but express RIZ2. And what happened to
these mice-- We initially had no idea, because when we made these mice, we had
no idea that RIZ was going to be a tumor suppressor yet. On the other hand,
these mice were viable. They were normal--we could not detect any
abnormalities--so we thought, "Ah, this is failure. We didn't succeed in
achieving what we wanted to in terms of studying the function of RIZ." And we
04:26:00just sort of gave up on these mice. Therefore, we pretty much killed most of the
mouse colony, most of the animals, but fortunately we had left about a dozen
alive. We kept them alive for their whole life. Then [after] about two years,
about twenty months of age, we noted that these mice developed tumors.
COHEN: Totally unexpected. You were just warehousing them?
HUANG: Yes, yes, unexpected. And that was very exciting. But the number was too
small to publish, so we immediately expanded our animal colonies and waited for
04:27:00another two years. This time it repeated the results basically. Indeed, these
mice are tumor prone and support our hypothesis.
COHEN: Now, by the time the second group was two years old, had you figured
about RIZ2 yet?
HUANG: Yes, at that time we had--[at] about the same time, I believe.
COHEN: Well, one of the things that interests me about this serendipity is, it
not only has to happen, but your mind has to be open to it happening. You know,
if Alexander Fleming had just thrown away those plates with the mold on them, we
wouldn't have penicillin.
HUANG: Right. Yes, it's absolutely true that luck is only for the prepared mind,
04:28:00as they say. You know, definitely, we are prepared for anything that's going to
happen. And I think this is bound to happen no matter what. If you're good
enough, you work on something and you may fail on your initial goals, but in the
process of doing this, you should be able to find something else. In a way, fate
comes in. Fate lets you fail something, but also lets you gain something. That's
certainly true in our case.
04:29:00COHEN: Okay. Well, in terms of a discovery like this one, another sort of
ethical issue comes up, which is can or should scientific ideas be owned by
anybody? I know you hold several patents and you have a couple more pending, and
people are patenting genes like crazy and whatnot. What do you think about that?
HUANG: Well, if there's no commercial thing attached to a scientific discovery,
then definitely, we don't need to patent anything. Patents, in my view, are
04:30:00still good at this point because our work may have some application that's going
to be good for human society. So to patent our work would actually benefit
society, because that would really give people incentive to actually develop
their ideas into some products that can be useful. If we don't have the patent
to protect [our work], then it is going to be difficult to attract people to
work on these things, because they don't see their effort, their investments,
being protected. So this is good from developing a product point of view. On the
other hand, it's good also-- It doesn't really interfere with scientific
04:31:00discovery, because in the academic world, you can still do whatever you want to
do regardless of whether you have a patent or not.
Sometimes, maybe in terms of exchanging materials, it gets slow because some
institutes require people to sign an MTA, material transfer agreement. Sometimes
the terms in that agreement are not very good to the other party, and then they
don't want to accept this agreement. Then they may be denied those reagents. In
that sense, you can say, "Okay, this hurts scientific discovery." But from the
04:32:00other side's point of view, if they have no interest in commercial things, then
they really shouldn't care about the MTA agreement. If all they're doing is pure
scientific discoveries, then they should be okay with any kind of agreement,
because these agreements basically limit their use of those materials for
commercial purposes, not for scientific discovery. So in a way, you can see it's
the commercial things that get in the way of scientific discovery. It's not the patent.
COHEN: Now, I know some people are reluctant to share their data because they
don't want to be scooped on something. Do you think that helps or hurts the
04:33:00process? Or maybe it doesn't affect it at all?
HUANG: Well, that's just the way it is. [When] people do science, the only
reward they get is recognition for what they've done.
[END OF TAPE 5, SIDE 1]
HUANG: So I don't think that in any way-- Even if it hurts scientific discovery
in the short term, it should still be that way. I don't think it hurts
scientific discovery that much anyway.
COHEN: In the long run?
HUANG: In the long run. Maybe it hurts your data for two years. What's the big
deal for two years in terms of the big picture? Definitely, when you're not
04:34:00ready to release your data, you just don't release it. Of course, that will hurt
somebody who's working on something related. But so be it. That's the way it is.
COHEN: It sounds like you are sort of a capitalist now.
HUANG: What do you mean by that?
COHEN: I mean, the capitalist economy versus the communist economy, where things
are profit motivated and you look for a commercial reason to do things. Would
you say that--? I mean, I'm kind of teasing you a little bit, but it sounds like
you've sort of adopted that philosophy, which was not the one you were raised
with, I guess.
04:35:00HUANG: Oh, definitely I don't have that communist view--not that much. I think
there are pluses and minuses for both views. I like the communist view that
people do things based on certain ideals--you know, more romantic type. Whereas
this capitalist is more material driven. So there are pluses and minuses. I
think there needs to be a balance.
COHEN: Kind of on that same line, are you naturalized? Are you a U.S.--?
HUANG: No. I'm a PR.
COHEN: Permanent resident?
COHEN: Do you ever think you might go back to China to live?
04:36:00HUANG: Yeah, I don't mind actually. Yeah, I might. I might, once I realize my
dreams here. Yeah, I always enjoy going back to China. I always enjoy the trips.
I wish I could do it once a year, at least.
COHEN: Would the possibility exist for you to work there in a similar way that
you work here?
HUANG: Not really. I don't think you can do competitive work there. Conditions
are not right yet.
COHEN: Well, in terms of your career--we'll do that first--how do you think
04:37:00you're doing? Are you about where you thought you would be at this stage of your
life? Or have you done more or less?
HUANG: You know, we always have high hopes. Definitely, I probably haven't
reached the ideal situation I wish I had. But then you will never be able to
achieve what you hope you will. People, just by nature, are not going to be
satisfied with whatever they have. There are always some people that are going
to do better than you and then some people worse than you. So you need to find
04:38:00some balance there. And if you want to be happy, then you need to be a little
bit content with what you already have.
I think I'm doing fine. I told you that initially when I started this lab I
wasn't expecting to clone a cancer gene. So in that regard, I think I have fared
better than I had thought. Of course, the work that I've described has not
gotten publicly recognized because our paper's still in press. So I haven't
reached that level that once your work is recognized, what is life going to be
04:39:00like? I haven't gotten there yet. I'm still not a big professor or a famous one.
[laughs] You know, most people are trying to get there. So I don't think I have
realized my dreams yet. We will still need a few more years of work to get
there, but I think we are on the right track right now.
COHEN: How about on a more personal level? When you look at your life in
general, is this--?
HUANG: In general, I think my life has been pretty positive. I'm pretty much
optimistic about what's happened. Yeah, I think my career has always been going
04:40:00up instead of going down. I haven't reached the point [where] I think I have
reached the highest and then [will] start to come down yet, so I still think my
career is moving up. I realized during this process that there were going to be
dark periods, difficult times. But somehow I've survived all of them and things
have come out better than it was before. So I'm pretty positive in this regard.
I think I have, generally, good fate. [laughs] Some people I have talked to say,
"I always have bad luck. Never good luck." I tell them, "That's not true. You
probably need to change your perspective."
COHEN: Have you heard the expression, the glass half full or half empty?
04:41:00HUANG: Right, I've definitely heard of that. Depending on how you view this
thing, it can be bad, it can be good.
COHEN: What do you see yourself doing, say, five years from now?
HUANG: Well, pretty much working the same direction--get more work done, expand
this PR family to discover a few more cancer genes. We have identified several
new ones, and we're testing if they are also cancer genes. There's a good chance
they will be. In five years we probably should know how many of these genes will
04:42:00be cancer genes. In the meantime we should try to do something even bigger than
just adding new genes to the cancer gene list. We should try to figure out the
real mechanisms of tumorigenesis, although it's going to be really tough. It
seems like the paradigm is, in general, correct, and that may be unlucky for our
generation. [laughs] There's only one DNA structure to be discovered. Once it's
done, it's done. So I don't know if we can ever achieve something greater than
what we are doing now.
COHEN: How about in ten years? Can you think that far in advance?
04:43:00HUANG: In ten years? In ten years--
COHEN: What do you see yourself doing? I mean, obviously you can't know what the
HUANG: Exactly. I'm a more spontaneous type of person, so I don't really have a
lot of plans. I believe things will come either by accident or something's going
to happen, so that can lead you somewhere. I'm just taking the attitude of, "Go
and see," so it's really hard to imagine anything ten years down the road. My
wife [Chen Ruo Ping] always keeps asking me, "You have to plan for ten years to
know what's going to happen." But I really don't have any plans. I think
04:44:00anything's possible. I may quit what I'm doing here and start something totally
different--go to a company or start a company or retire. Or maybe I will have
made enough money and then do something else. Science is moving so fast
nowadays, it's hard to imagine that what you're doing now you will still keep
doing in ten years.
COHEN: Well, a lot changes in life in ten years. You know, in ten years your
kids [Matthew and Samuel Huang] will be grown up. Lots of things will be different.
COHEN: Okay. Well, what is the thing that you like the most about being a
04:45:00scientist, if you had to narrow it down?
HUANG: The freedom that you control your own destiny and you work for yourself
in the process. I agree very much with some professors who say that you're
having fun and, in the meantime, you're getting paid. You're doing science that
is a purely self-satisfying endeavor. You know, you're being creative. If you
are indeed creative, you get recognized for doing that. And in the meantime you
can have pretty much all the benefits that other professions have--getting a
04:46:00decent salary to have a life, to have a family. I think in a way science is like
art. You get lots of satisfaction from creating something. This is basically
your hobby, if you think of it. You're doing it to satisfy yourself, not to
satisfy other people, not to work for a company or something. So I think it's a
very good profession. I wouldn't mind doing it again. Especially if money is not
an issue, I would think that most people would prefer science than medicine or
COHEN: Prefer science than medicine?
HUANG: Yeah, because if grants are not a major issue, if money's there--
04:47:00COHEN: And why is that? I mean, I have my own ideas, but I want to hear yours.
HUANG: For example, being a doctor, your job is kind of boring--you know, seeing
patients. Of course, some difficult diseases require some creative thinking and
treatment, but in general, most doctors just do quite routine type of work.
Whereas a scientist can be creative every day and is enriching himself with
creating new things. His time is spent creating. Whereas a teacher or doctor is
04:48:00not really generating anything new. So I think just like if the economy was not
a concern, there would be more people doing artwork, maybe, instead of having to
have a profession to make a living. So it is quite a good profession for a human being.
Unfortunately, because of the grant pressure and the limited money, if you do
science, you have to be able to handle the pressure of getting grants and stuff.
COHEN: So then the flip side of that question is, what's the thing you like the
least? Is it the money stuff or something else?
HUANG: In science?
COHEN: Being a scientist, the thing you like the least.
04:49:00HUANG: Being a scientist, the thing you like the least--I don't really know.
Certainly I'd like to see that the grant is not such a big thing. However, if
you are doing great science which is recognized, then the grant is really not an
issue anymore. It's only an issue when you're starting out, when you're in a
difficult situation and your work is not going well.
04:50:00Well, I dislike people who do science as a way of just making a living on a
salary. I think they should not be in the field of science. I like people to be
enthusiastic about what they're doing and to think about science all the
time--think about what they're working on--and just be very driven about it.
More and more, you see postdocs-- I don't know what they're doing, what they're
thinking. [laughs] Definitely not a lot of them are thinking in terms of making
some great discoveries. I think that was my idea in graduate school. I always
04:51:00dreamed about discovering something important and was always very enthusiastic
about what I did. I [would] like to see that more in all these postdocs and students.
COHEN: Do you think postdocs have changed over the years, or are they just
different from the way you were?
HUANG: No, I don't think it's changed. I think somehow, in this population of
scientists, there are always going to be the creative ones, the enthusiastic
ones, and then there are those who just treat it as work. Unavoidable. Just like
not every Ph.D. student will end up being a PI [principal investigator] of a lab.
04:52:00COHEN: Well, if tomorrow someone said to you, "Sorry, you can't be a scientist
anymore," what would you do with yourself? What would you do if you couldn't be
HUANG: I'd still have to have work, right?
COHEN: Well, I don't know. Maybe you could go be a beach bum. What is your sort
of fantasy that you would do if you were not a scientist?
HUANG: You mean if I retired, like, tomorrow?
HUANG: [laughs] How would I live retired life, right? We have already planned
some fantasy about what I will do after retirement, which is playing golf in the
04:53:00morning and tennis in the afternoon. [mutual laughter]
HUANG: I don't know. At this point I don't think I would start something new and
try to make a career again. Probably I'd just enjoy myself and be happy. In the
end you accomplish things and you realize, historywise, it doesn't really matter
unless it's something really great. [laughs] That's more related to fate rather
04:54:00than working for it. Happiness doesn't depend on success, as you probably know,
and doesn't depend on how much money you earn. It's more related to your
perspective about yourself. Gradually, I've learned that point, and I've tried
to be less competitive in that regard, tried to not compare myself to other people.
In the Chinese tradition, that has been a very different idea. In China, we
start comparing ourselves to our contemporaries--classmates--right from the
beginning, from school.
COHEN: Oh, really?
04:55:00HUANG: Your grades and stuff are always known, and you're always classified
relatively--where you stand in this order of status. That has something to do
with Confucius's idea. So you see a lot of Chinese paying more attention to
these outside success symbols. Then we come to America, you see people pay less
attention to these symbols of success, and you see many happy people even though
they're just taxi drivers. That's something I have gradually learned. And I
04:56:00think that's important. I'm always very much interested in books on these
topics. What is the philosophy of happiness? What is it?
COHEN: So this is what you read?
HUANG: I read a little bit of this, yeah.
COHEN: Well, actually I've asked you all the questions that I have to ask.
Usually when I come to the end of my questions, I like to just give you an
opportunity to add anything you would like to the record before we finish up. So
is there anything you'd like to say?
HUANG: Well, I don't really have too much. I hope this serves as something that
04:57:00has recorded some of my philosophical views. I find that may be useful and
valuable later on. [laughs] I'm always very much interested in philosophy.
So again, one point I think I have realized, and which I'm not sure how many
others realize, is this fate thing--this pay your dues business, perseverance.
You work first and then get rewarded. You suffer first and then achievement is
rewarded later. Most people, I think, think of it purely as cause and result.
Certainly, you have to work in order to get something. But I tend to view that
04:58:00there is a certain amount of probability or mathematics involved. My general
view is [that] God, whatever it is, is fair, just like probability. It's fair.
[If] you have great fortune in getting something, your fortune of getting the
next big thing is going to be very small; your chance of doing that again is
going to be small. On the other hand, if you've suffered a great deal, then the
chance for you to have another great suffering is going to be minimal. On the
other hand, your chance of success is going to be higher because you already
04:59:00have suffered. In that way, I think it comes out all right.
Anyway, I think there is an element of fate in this whole philosophy idea about
work and success, and I don't know if that element has previously been
recognized. As I told you, I was thinking I should write something about this
idea for a book. Then I realized two thousand years ago a Chinese philosopher
had written it. But still, I don't know if, in his writing, this element of fate
is actually there or not.
COHEN: The probability part of it?
HUANG: Yeah, the probability part of it.
COHEN: I know I told you I had run out of questions, but I just thought of
another one. If you were to write such a book, would you write it for an
English-speaking audience or in Chinese?
05:00:00HUANG: Well, probably English, since I'm more comfortable now with English
writing than Chinese writing. I haven't written in Chinese for fifteen years. I
don't usually write letters, you know. It doesn't really matter actually.
Presently I'm reading a novel by a famous Chinese author. This novel was written
by him in English, and it's about things about China. This book is now
translated in Chinese and I'm reading the Chinese version of it.
COHEN: Oh, that's interesting.
HUANG: Yeah, it's very interesting. Even though that author was trained in
China, he can certainly write in English.
05:01:00COHEN: Sure. Okay, anything else? No, that's it? Okay. Well, thank you very much
HUANG: It was my pleasure.
[END OF TAPE 5, SIDE 2]
[END OF INTERVIEW]