Choice or Destiny?

The election campaign in US really makes everyone wonder about choice and destiny of the candidates as well as the voters.The outcome can have far and wide impact around the world, even the small island of Taiwan because it could mean “break or make” depending on the stand of the next president of US in relation to China.

Nobel Prize awarded to the malaria researcher Tu Youyou in 2015 surprised many around the world due to her background. It intrigues me most to compare her with the only Nobel Laureate from Taiwan, Yuan T. Lee.

Tu’s research is simple enough for any high school student to comprehend yet scientists not in Lee’s field may even struggle to explain his high power research. Tu is a grass root researcher while Lee is a renowned scientist with numerous international accolades, one is dedicated to only research while the other has  diverged to other high profile endeavors (wilfully or unwilfully due to social pressure from his name). Who has done more good or harm to herself or himself, country and mankind? What is choice and what is destiny?

Nobel Laureate Diverged into Education Reforms and Politics

Yuan T. Lee was a Chemistry professor at UC Berkeley but returned to serve his homeland,Taiwan, after the award in 1986.If he had stayed in US, would he have made more contribution in science?  Lee supported the 2000 Presidential Election resulting in a narrow victory for the Pan-green coalition which advocates Taiwan independence. The President was imprisoned for corruption after he stepped down but  Lee is still a supporter for the coalition. What would be the destiny of Taiwan amidst power struggles between China and US?

Lee has been criticized for his advocacy on education reforms that many claim to have plagued students and parents and even  reduced competitiveness of higher education as well as the economy.Since 1986, Taiwan’s universities had increased from 28 to 140 resulting in declined vocational education and specialized training. Unemployment of college graduates is at record high yet employers cannot find technical workers with proper vocational training to fill positions essential for competitiveness.Higher education is currently in a merger frenzy due to declining birth rates.

Taiwan’s college education is cheap compared to US but would there be any negative impact with Sanders’ free college education for all? Lee wanted college education available for all. In the end college admission rate from the once highly stringent entrance exam approached almost 100% compared to single or double digits before.Only now the young generation with liberal arts education fill the streets yet they (and may be their parents as well) shun blue collar technical jobs because of their college degrees.

Anyone who had any contact with the Nobel Laureate probably could not bear to say a bad word about the soft spoken, polite and modest man. Even though I don’t know what really happened with his involvement in politics or the education reforms, I am inclined to believe from my own experience (see the paragraph at the very end of this post) that he had the best intentions and ideals but his name or idea was used rightly or wrongly amidst conflicts of egos and vested interests of educators and politicians.

“The superb has no self, no merit, no name.” Chuang Tzu.

Elderly Lady’s Exclusive Dedication to Malaria Research

Tu Youyou is the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize with no doctorates, no overseas education or research experience and no membership  even in Chinese Academies. But she attended medical college studying pharmacology and was trained in traditional Chinese medicine.Her discovery of artemisinin as treatment of malaria is a significant breakthrough in tropical medicine, helping people in South Asia, Africa, and South America.

During China’s Cultural Revolution, scientists were denigrated but there was an urgent national need to find a cure for malaria decimating Chinese soldiers fighting Americans in northern Vietnam, Tu was appointed head of the secret mission. (It seemed like her destiny was superb.) But she was initially sent to malaria plagued Hainan (called Edge of the World in the old days before turning into a popular resort today). During that period her daughter was left alone at a nursery in Beijing because her husband was banished to a village, it was an agonizing choice but did she even have a choice?.

Tu discovered that a low-temperature extraction process could be used to isolate an effective antimalarial substance from wormwood based on a traditional Chinese herbal medicine text written in 340A.D. Animal tests showed it was effective in mice and monkeys, Tu and her team volunteered to be the first human subjects.  It was proven safe and she conducted successful clinical trials with human patients. Her work was published anonymously in 1977. In 1981, she presented the findings at a meeting with the World Health Organization.

Youyou Tu cartoon

Before 2011, Tu had been obscure for decades. (The hand in the cartoons depict she was grimly pressured forty years ago and then held warmly as  the most precious gem forty years later when she won her first international award.) Some allege that two other researchers had already targeted the compounds in sweet wormwood before Tu even started, BBC used a sub-heading “modest mouse or scene-stealer, you decide” in an article about her.She is 84 and still working part-time despite of her ailing health that some attributed to her serving as human subjects in testing potential cures.She has never been skilled in domestic affairs that fortunately were all responsibilities of her husband, but her relationship with her two daughters in their early childhood was not intimate.

“Falter not with things, understand destiny and things change but hold fast to the roots.” Chuang Tzu.



(My personal experience on how Lee’s idea was ruined: When a business conglomerate established a science education foundation in Lee’s name, I worked as an editor for a biography for students from higher grades in elementary school to junior high. At an interview with the author of Lee’s biography, Lee was brilliant to use his childhood’s favorite sport of baseball to passionately explain his chemical kinetics research in such vivid and easy to understand terms. The author was a renowned young adult’s writer and former film director who had teacher’s credentials and taught science in  junior high for a few years in his early career. He demanded royalties much higher than the industry norm but the director of the foundation, a math professor with no publishing experience, was delighted with the choice and signed the contract right away. He was  among the group of college professors and high school teachers in chemistry, physics or math along with principals who were very involved in the foundation as well as education reforms spearheaded by Lee. Unfortunately conflicts enhanced with the director expecting the author to chip in extra efforts in events and functions like his extracurricular activities  while the author felt the compensation could not justify the time and efforts needed just to understand the Nobel Laureate’s complex research. I was fired for staying neutral instead of making the author comply with the director’s expectations. A year later I got a cordial invitation to the book launch but declined attendance, not because of the shame of being fired but the embarrassment of initiating the book that ended up as another half-baked biography stacking the shelves. Lee’s creative book concept of blending his high power research science with a fun sport was ingenious, but maybe only he could write the book and did justice to the subject matter. With him in such high demand from science, research institution management, education, politics and even business sectors, just booking the author’s  interview with Lee was almost like a home run.)



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