Sci. Aging Knowl. Environ., 30 April 2003
Vol. 2003, Issue 17, p. nf8
[DOI: 10.1126/sageke.2003.17.nf8]


The Accidental Biologist

Geneticist Eugenia Wang crossed the Pacific from Taiwan to forge a life for herself in the world of science

Ingfei Chen;2003/17/nf8 This article comes to you through a collaboration between SAGE KE and Science's career development Web site, Next Wave. The joint venture is supported by the AARP Andrus Foundation. Eugenia Wang dreamed up her first scientific research proposal in the 1950s, when she was about 12 years old and living in Taipei, Taiwan. A tomboy whose knees and socks were always grimy from playing in the street, she noticed how hard her mother worked to cook family meals. After Wang learned about Tang, the orange juice powder invented by NASA for its astronauts, a light bulb blinked on. She told her mother, "When I grow up, I'll be a scientist," she recalls. "I will create three pills: a breakfast pill, a lunch pill, and a supper pill. And then you don't have to do any cooking, you don't have to do any grocery shopping." Upon hearing Wang's idea, her sister, older by 17 years, angrily said to their mother, "What kind of girl are you raising? I guarantee she will never find a husband. Who is the man who would want to marry her if she won't cook, she won't sew?" In response, Wang told her family about her alternate career choice: "Look, I'm going to be president; somebody else will do the sewing."

Wang's rebel streak has powered her over many barricades, societal, cultural, and scientific. Contrary to her sister's predictions, Wang, now 58, is married--she and her husband, computer scientist Alan Bloch, have a 23-year-old son--and she can whip up a tasty traditional Chinese dinner. She never became president, but she moves with authority in her own domain: the study of programmed cell death and aging. Wang is a cell biologist at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Kentucky, where she is starting up the future Gheens Center for Aging and Age-Related Diseases. She co-organized the Gordon Research Conference on the biology of aging in March 2003 and has coordinated National Institute on Aging-sponsored workshops on senescence. A heavyset woman with a mop of short, tousled hair and a round face that is dominated by a pair of thick brown glasses, Wang speaks softly, sometimes mumbling. But her colleagues in the field of biogerontology say that she's earned a reputation as a hard-driving scientist with high standards.

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East meets West. University of Louisville cell biologist Eugenia Wang's research on the genetic mechanisms that shape life span includes investigations of centenarians in Taiwan. A fan of Agatha Christie novels, she collects traditional Chinese paintings as well as antique European furniture. [Credit: Tom Fougerousse/University of Louisville]

One of those colleagues, neurologist and neuroscientist Hyman Schipper of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who worked with Wang in the '90s at the Bloomfield Centre for Research in Aging, describes her as "extraordinarily tough," yet fair. She lives by "a powerful work ethic that abhors shortcuts and flimsy groundwork, and she really doesn't have much patience for individuals who are not ready to give their best to whatever they do," Schipper says. "Eugenia can be a tiger in the laboratory, [but] she's actually a pussycat outside the workplace. She's extremely warm and sensitive; she cares tremendously about how people in her lab do long after they've left." Russell Prough, a biochemist at the University of Louisville, agrees. Although Wang isn't necessarily the hail-fellow-well-met type, he says, "within 5 minutes of talking with her, she's so engaging, and if you have common interests, you're immediately caught up in how energetic and enthusiastic she is."

Born in mainland China, Wang was soon engulfed in the country's civil strife. In 1948, when she was 3, fighting between the Nationalist Chinese and the Communists broke out in her hometown of Nanking. Along with many others, Wang, her three siblings, and their mother escaped on a train, living as refugees in "desperate" circumstances for nearly a year, she recalls. Later, her father, a newspaper copy editor who stayed behind in Nanking, joined them and they moved to Taipei, Taiwan. "When we arrived, we were poor. But then, everybody was poor so it was OK," Wang says.

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The calm before the storm. Wang, shown here at age 2, lived in Nanking, China, until 1948, when the Communist uprising forced her mother to flee with her and her three siblings. Initially leaving Wang's father behind, mother and children lived as refugees in Hanyang and Guangzhou for almost a year before the entire family moved to Taiwan. [Credit: Courtesy of Eugenia Wang]

Given the circumstances, picking a career was a matter of future job security and survival, not of personal fulfillment. The sciences were considered a ticket to upward mobility, so Wang decided in high school to shoot for physics. She took an intense 2-day entrance exam to get into Taipei's National Taiwan University, which accepted the top 1000 students from a field of tens of thousands and placed them into different academic fields according to their scores. Wang didn't make the cut for physics or chemistry; "I got assigned to entomology," she says--a field she had not considered. Still, she felt lucky to get into college: "It was everybody's dream at the time." She received a scholarship but tutored children in math 6 days a week to help support her family.

In college, Wang aspired to emigrate to America--"It was generally accepted that the U.S. had streets paved with gold," she says--and began working on her English. She listened to news on the Voice of America for 30 minutes or so every morning and memorized all the words in a Chinese-English Webster's dictionary. She also went to the library whenever she found an hour to spare. For instance, after midterm or final exams, which were held in the mornings, her classmates would spend the afternoons at the movies. But Wang didn't have money for entertainment, so she headed for the stacks instead. "I just sat there and read all the encyclopedias in English." She devoured the history of Western civilization, holding a particular fascination for the story of how the Hapsburg family established the Austro-Hungarian empire. Wang learned how to speed-read because, she recalls, "I was in a big hurry to find out what happened to this part of the family."

Wang graduated with a bachelor's degree in entomology in 1966. She wanted to take her studies further, but graduate science programs were almost nonexistent in Taiwan, and professional opportunities for women were limited. So she applied to and got accepted into a master's degree program in entomology at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. She came to the United States in 1967, borrowing $800 from a high school teacher and four of her father's friends to make the move. Once she arrived, to continue improving her English and to familiarize herself with American culture, she practiced talking into a tape recorder and made herself watch TV news and The Johnny Carson Show.

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Up to the challenge. Wang originally wanted to pursue physics at National Taiwan University in Taipei, but school officials assigned her to study insects. She graduated from the university in 1966. A year later, she emigrated to the United States. [Credit: Courtesy of Eugenia Wang]

In 1969, Wang went on to Ph.D. studies in entomology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. But after her adviser moved to Canada, she switched to the lab of cell biologist Bob Goldman, who was studying the role of the cytoskeleton--the network of protein filaments that help the cell keep its shape--in cell movement and specialization. He suggested that she investigate how organelles such as mitochondria move within cells. Wang's work revealed that organelles in connective tissue cells from baby hamster kidneys glide between the nucleus and the cell membrane, along the protein filaments of the cytoskeleton. She also found that treating cells with colchicine, a chemical that disrupts the cytoskeleton and stops cell division, causes the nucleus to move--a startling contradiction to the then-current dogma that the nucleus was fixed in space. Goldman decided that Wang should present her finding at a meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology. "Boy, that really stirred up a storm in the lab," Wang recalls. "I was a second-year graduate student; I didn't know how to speak English well--how could I go present at a national meeting?" Wang's talk went smoothly, she says ("I think Bob Goldman made me rehearse every day for a month"), and she finished her Ph.D. in 1974.

Wang then won a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health that would fund her postgraduate training. Goldman had helped her find a position at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York, but that arrangement fell through; so he steered her toward a postdoc with a friend of his, virologist Allan Goldberg, who was at the Rockefeller University in New York City. At Rockefeller, Wang would work not only with Goldberg but also with virologists Purnell Choppin and Igor Tamm, pioneers in studying viral replication and host responses to infection.

Wang knew nothing about viruses. "I tell you, most of my life, the way it was shaped, it was just by accident," she says. "I got into entomology because of the circumstances of the exam, I came to the United States because of necessity, and I got into virology by accident, too."

Bridging the Gender Gap

Wang's experiences in Rockefeller's virology department, which was founded by Nobel laureate Peyton Rous, solidified her research training, focused her scientific thinking, and gave her the chance to see giants in the field at work, she says. But the environment for women scientists--let alone those from China--was radically different than it is today. Every day at noon, Wang says, the senior faculty would go to the university dining room for lunch with all of the male associate and assistant professors and postdocs, leaving the five female postdocs in the department eating separately and feeling left out. "It never occurred to them to invite us," she says.

But one day, a prominent female scientist who was at Rockefeller on a sabbatical noticed them at lunch and asked why they looked so glum. When they voiced their grievances, the visitor responded, "I bet you if you invite yourself to go to lunch with them, they would not say no. Have you ever tried?'"

Wang decided to give it a go. "So this one day, Monday, comes. I was so timid. I said, 'I'm going to break away from the crowd who are moaning and groaning during lunchtime.' " She approached a professor whose lab was next door to where she worked and whom she found to be friendly and open. "I said, 'Would you mind if I come with you guys for lunch?' " Wang recalls, mimicking her younger self in a shy, hesitant voice. "He said, 'Oh yea, Eugenia, why not?' " For the next year and a half, she says, she sat uncomfortably through lunch with the men without saying a word. "Remember, I was Chinese. I didn't know how to do small talk. ... This was a very formalized lunch, with all the cutlery out there, and nobody had taught me how to eat Western-style. So I just sort of followed along. And after a year and a half of this, all of a sudden I said to myself, 'Oh my God--I know how to do small talk!' " Wang recalls, with astonishment in her voice. She was chit-chatting about science, the weather, and the news just like everyone else. By 6 months later, Wang had sufficiently assimilated herself into the lunchtime socializing that the men would seek her out to walk to the dining room.

Being the odd woman out was a recurring theme in Wang's early scientific career. By 1978, she was an assistant professor at Rockefeller--the first female faculty appointment in the virology department. One time, a technician came to fix her electron microscope and, after finishing up, approached her, demanding to talk to Dr. Wang. "I said, 'You have been talking to Dr. Wang for the last 30 minutes,' " Wang recalls. Another time, the University of Toronto invited her to give a seminar. When she showed up at the university's guest lodgings--an old English-style boys' dormitory--the reception desk greeted her with dismay. "You're Dr. Wang?" the clerk said. "Oh, no! We were expecting a man."

Forward March Into Aging

Wang stayed at Rockefeller for 12 years, initially studying cytoskeletal proteins in virus-infected cells. Researchers knew that in most cases, after viruses invade a cell, they elicit production of interferon, a protein that plays a role in immune defense. Wang, working with Tamm, began investigating whether exposing human connective tissue cells to that protein could trigger cellular changes similar to those induced upon infection by the Sendai and Rous sarcoma viruses, and others. That's not what happened. "We treated the cell with interferon, and all of a sudden [it] looked exactly flat down like a pancake," she recalls. In searching the research literature, Wang learned that these cells were behaving similarly to those in the nondividing, zombielike state of senescence, so she began to investigate the parallels (see "More Than a Sum of Our Cells"). "That's how I got into aging." Her studies led her in 1985 to discover statin, a protein that accumulates in the nucleus of nonduplicating human cells, including those that are senescent. Statin became one of the first known molecular markers of cell division arrest--and one of the first indicators that cell senescence results from a gain, not a loss, of gene activity.

After arriving at Rockefeller, Wang met and married Bloch, and then they had their son, Joseph. When Joseph was about 6 years old, his teacher asked him where lettuce came from. "D'Agostino," he replied, referring to the gourmet grocery store in Manhattan where the family shopped. Wang and Bloch were mortified. "When my son couldn't recognize lettuce as a farm product, we realized we'd better get out of Manhattan," she says. So in 1987, Wang landed a position at McGill University, and the family migrated north to Montreal. Her job was to start up the Bloomfield Centre for Research in Aging at the university's Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research, overseeing everything from fundraising and the design of the 929-square-meter center to recruitment of new faculty. She also continued her research. Wang's lab was among the first to show that senescent cells fail to die despite serious abnormalities--such as their production of proteins that harm surrounding tissue--because they resist the suicidal process of apoptosis, which normally sends misbehaving cells to their doom. Her findings led her to propose that senescent cells foster age-dependent diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.

In 2000, Wang relocated again, to Louisville, her husband's hometown. At the University of Louisville, she is currently recruiting faculty to the Gheens Center, which is being funded with a $2.5 million grant from the Gheens Foundation, a local charitable organization. The center will focus on the genomics and integrative biology of aging along with environmental influences that shape the process of growing old. Despite juggling a heavy load of administrative duties, Wang hasn't lost her touch as an innovative thinker. She can "look at data and make out a story as quick as anybody I've ever met," says Prough. She also has a knack for seeing around corners, colleagues say. "Her intuitions are so good that while [her research ideas] may look like leaps of faith, they normally always have potential for bearing fruit," Prough adds. For instance, when apoptosis was discovered--as a necessary process for proper embryonic growth--many scientists thought that cell suicide acted primarily during development. But Wang quickly shifted her lab's investigations into apoptosis because she realized that it could also be a means of getting rid of damaged or troublemaking cells throughout life. She also jumped early on into using DNA microarray technology to analyze the cell aging process.

Holding Down the Fort

One can't help wondering how Wang does it all--have a family, run a lab, and handle her managerial tasks. For starters, she keeps a punishing schedule, says Schipper, who remembers how she sometimes called him at 5 a.m. to tell him about a research idea that had struck her in the middle of the night. Schipper once asked her how she honed her administrative skills. "She looked at me with a straight face and said that she reads military biographies," he says, laughing. "That really explains the way she runs the lab--with military precision."

Wang is a big fan of World War II General Omar Bradley, who set up the Veterans Administration to help GIs who were returning from Europe and Asia reassimilate into society. From Bradley, she says, she learned about managing people. "Bradley was a soldier's general," she says. "He knew what the foot soldier needs. Once you know what the foot soldier needs, you will be successful."

Former postdoc Atanu Duttaroy, now a molecular geneticist at Howard University in Washington, D.C., can attest to the effectiveness with which Wang takes care of her lab members' needs. The day he arrived in Montreal, driving a rental truck full of his belongings, she told him that she would meet him at his new apartment. "I was wondering, 'How am I going to unload this truck?' " Duttaroy says. "She, her husband, and her son showed up, and believe it or not, they moved the stuff into my apartment."

As for motherhood, Wang tackled the role with the same spunk as she did everything else--and with substantial support from her husband. "I thought up all sorts of ways to have my son with me without worrying about what my peers would think," she says. "For example, I would go to a [conference] and bring my son. In the '70s, that was not done, but nowadays everybody is doing it." At Rockefeller, she took Joseph to her lab with her on Saturday mornings and set him in a playpen while she did her experiments; during the week, she left him with a babysitter. Later, in Montreal, Bloch took a part-time computer-engineering job so that he could spend time with Joseph at home while Wang concentrated on the task of building up the Bloomfield Centre. Bloch, who holds master's degrees in computer science, public health, and teaching English as a second language, is also an important source of support and ideas in her scientific work, Wang says: Not only does he conduct the statistical analyses of her data, "he helps me formulate a lot of my thoughts, and he proofreads everything I write."

All in all, Wang's career represents a string of enterprising, hard-earned achievements in transcending differences in gender, ethnicity, language, and culture. The secret of her success, it seems, has been to rise to each challenge and seek a strategy to overcome it. Self-pity is not an option. "If you acknowledge there is a barrier," she says, "then you'll never be able to cross it."

April 30, 2003

Ingfei Chen, a SAGE KE contributing editor based in Santa Cruz, California, would love to be able to pop a supper pill.

Suggested ReadingBack to Top

  1. C. Lacelle, S. Xu, E. Wang, Identification of high caspase-3 mRNA expression as a unique signature profile for extremely old individuals. Mech. Ageing Dev. 123, 1133-1144 (2002). [CrossRef][Medline]
  2. R. Marcotte and E. Wang, Replicative senescence revisited. J. Gerontol. A Biol. Sci. Med. Sci. 57, B257-B269 (2002). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  3. E. Wang, A 57,000-mol-wt protein uniquely present in nonproliferating cells and senescent human fibroblasts. J. Cell Biol. 100, 545-551 (1985). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  4. E. Wang, Rapid disappearance of statin, a nonproliferating and senescent cell- specific protein, upon reentering the process of cell cycling. J. Cell Biol. 101, 1695-1701 (1985). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  5. E. Wang, Senescent human fibroblasts resist programmed cell death, and failure to suppress bcl2 is involved. Cancer Res. 55, 2284-2292 (1995). [Abstract/Free Full Text]
  6. E. Wang, R. Marcotte, E. Petroulakis, Signaling pathway for apoptosis: A racetrack for life or death. J. Cell Biochem. Suppl. 32-33 , 95-102 (1999). [CrossRef]
Citation: I. Chen, The Accidental Biologist. Sci. SAGE KE 2003, nf8 (30 April 2003);2003/17/nf8

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