Interview - Shiao-Chun Tu

Dr. Shiao-Chun Tu was born in the Henan province, Nanyang City, China. Growing up, Tu was the youngest of his ten siblings. Half of his siblings, including himself, moved to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the civil war in China; the other half remained in China. When Tu reunited with his family about thirty years later, he remarks that he never felt like they were strangers. His childhood memories include his mother who was a traditional type of mother, caring for the family and household. Tu also fondly comments on his father who was a national legislator, as well as his grandfather, a poor farmworker who emphasized generosity rather than fame and fortune.

Tu attended the prestigious National Taiwan University for his undergraduate education, receiving a B.S. in Agricultural Chemistry in 1966. Given the limited economic opportunities in Taiwan, he decided to pursue higher education in the US and went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he obtained a Master of Nutritional Science in Nutritional Biochemistry in 1969 and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1973. At first, Tu struggled with English and had trouble keeping up in his courses when he moved to the US, but he improved his English by purposefully living with an older couple who had the patience to help him with the language. After Cornell, Tu became a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard from 1973-1977. His wife takes credit for getting Tu the position after she met a professor from the institution on a flight who remembered Tu’s application because his wife had misspelled his name.

Having received a number of job offers following his fellowship at Harvard, Tu decided to come to the University of Houston where he began as an Assistant Professor, then Associate, Full Professor, Chair of the Department of Biochemical and Biophysical Sciences, and finally, Professor Emeritus. Tu states that he ultimately decided on University of Houston because he believed that he would have more impact and potential for growth there than another already well-established research institution. Tu’s research specialties include enzymology, learning how enzymes work, understanding its structure, and its chemical and physical mechanisms. He has received numerous honors, awards, and patents for his work, including co-founding a company with other colleagues called, VisiGen Biotechnologies, Inc. The company was founded to develop a way to expedite the process of determining the human genome DNA sequence better than the available technology at the time.

Tu has mentored many students, particularly Chinese and Asian students. He states that learning English is extremely important, and scientific communication involves writing not for yourself to understand, but for other persons to understand. He goes on to say that students should feel comfortable admitting when they don’t know something. To future generations of scientists, Tu states that they should be devoted and passionate about what they do as well as be truthful about their work. Tu also remarks that although he is a scientist, he believes that it is good for Asians to be involved in all disciplines and facets of society, such as public service, social science, and law.

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