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Oral history interview with Yi Zhong

  • 1999-Aug-30 – 1999-Aug-31
  • 1999-Sep-02

Yi Zhong was born in Ji Shou, Hunan Province, China, shortly before the Cultural Revolution began. His father had been a sort of director of an Army athletic program and his mother an internist in a government hospital, but when Yi was about eight the Cultural Revolution reassigned his parents, his father to a school for reeducating administrators and his mother to a farm. Yi and his sister and brother lived with their maternal grandparents; their parents visited when they could. Yi feels that he was somewhat isolated as a youngster and sometimes rebellious. At some point the whole family was sent to a farm about forty miles from the grandparents, and they had to walk the whole way there. Yi felt that his schools were not especially good because education was not valued, except for science classes. He had only basic subjects in school, but because he valued knowledge he studied on his own. He always liked mathematics and physics. After Yi finished high school he was assigned to a farm to live. There he designed and made a radio, on which he heard about the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1976, the beginning of the end of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping came into power and reestablished the primacy of education, reinstituting entrance to college by examination. Yi was accepted at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He was so excited he left all his possessions at the farm and hitchhiked home, from there taking to Beijing a train so packed he could not even get to the restroom. In college Yi had no choice of subject but was assigned to study nuclear engineering. There he also first learned about space exploration, music, philosophy, even Chinese novels. Yi went to the movies (where he met his future wife); he played Go and bridge; he tasted his first beer. He met Mu-Ming Poo, who recommended Yi to Chun-Fang Wu at the University of Iowa as a PhD student. When Yi received his bachelor's degree he wanted to change subjects to biology because he found physics hard and biology more intuitive. Yi suffered severe culture shock when he arrived in the United States. He marveled at Americans' personal freedom, especially because he could determine his own future, not have it assigned to him. He began his work with Aplysia, spending three years analyzing excitability. He was really interested in the brain, however, in learning memory, and switched to Drosophila. After finishing his PhD he accepted an offer of his own lab, no postdoc, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He visits China once or twice a year; he collaborates and intends to set up his own parallel lab there. Yi feels that it has taken him several years and a number of changes (he gets bored) of subject to reach his professional goals. He likes his coworkers at Cold Spring Harbor and their work; he hopes that opening a lab in China will provide more and cheaper manpower and that the two labs can exchange postdocs. He feels that he has three things he still wants to study: the brain; Alzheimer's disease; and learning enhancement. And, he adds, a fourth thing: he wants to write a book about the nervous system of the fly.

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