Oral history interview with Tian Xu

  • 2000-Jul-11 – 2000-Jul-13

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

Access this interview

Available upon request are 1 PDF transcript and 12 audio recording files.

After submitting a brief form, you will receive immediate access to these files. If you have any questions about transcripts, recordings, or usage permissions, contact the Center for Oral History at oralhistory@sciencehistory.org.

PDF — 200 KB