Testimonials for Pioneer Member Ray Wu

Teh-hui Kao – Dr. Ray Wu: Scientist, Mentor and Extraordinary Human Being:  My association with Dr. Ray Wu began in January 1982 when I joined his lab at Cornell as a postdoctoral associate. Prior to working in his lab, my academic and research training had been in chemistry and biochemistry. At that time, recombinant DNA technology was still in its infancy, but its potential for revolutionizing life sciences research was clearly recognized. I consulted with several people about moving into this area, and they all highly recommended that I contact Dr. Wu. I took their advice and wrote Dr. Wu; however, I wasn’t optimistic that he would be interested in having someone without any prior experience join his lab. To my pleasant surprise, Dr. Wu responded positively to my job inquiry and after reviewing my application, he offered me a postdoc position. Before moving to Ithaca, I had a chance to meet Dr. Wu for the first time. I was very impressed by his gentle demeanor and unassuming personality, characteristics that I didn’t always associate with scientists of high stature. This meeting further reinforced my belief that I had made the right decision.

During our first days on the Ithaca campus, Dr. Wu concerned himself not just with my own integration into his lab, but also with the resettlement of my family. My wife has always been deeply grateful for a phone call he made on her behalf to a colleague in the Dean’s Office of the Cornell Graduate School where she was applying for a job. Perhaps it was his call that led to her ultimate employment. Dr. Wu’s faith in her on the basis of just a few interactions made her determined to prove her worth by greater efforts.

When I first joined the lab, Dr. Wu’s research focused on method development and sequence analyses of cytochrome c from various organisms (but no plants yet). For method development, Dr. Wu was mainly interested in further improving (manual) DNA sequencing techniques. I had to learn many basic techniques from scratch, but fortunately, Dr. Wu’s lab had standardized protocols for all routine procedures. After a short learning period, Dr. Wu asked me to work on improving the procedure of cDNA library construction, particularly the step that involved ligating double-stranded cDNA, synthesized from poly(A)+ RNA, to a cloning vector. This step could be accomplished by ligating synthetic adapters with appropriate restriction site(s) to double-stranded cDNA; however, this involved blunt-end ligation, which was not efficient. Dr. Wu asked me to try an alternative approach, using the enzyme terminal transferase to add a “tail” to double-stranded cDNA and a complementary tail to the cloning vector. Since the length of the tail is critical for the efficiency of annealing between the tailed cDNA and vector, my work was to optimize reaction conditions (time and temperature of incubation, concentration of magnesium, amount of enzyme per DNA ends, etc.) so as to maximize the efficiency of cloning. Dr. Wu’s lab had previously characterized terminal transferase quite extensively, and in fact a paper published in 1976 is frequently cited for this enzyme. Throughout this work, I learned directly from Dr. Wu how to properly design experiments and what’s involved in method development.

Approximately a year into my postdoc tenure, Dr. Wu showed me a draft proposal for Rockefeller Foundation funding on identification of rice genes. This represented a completely new direction for Dr. Wu’s research, but it seemed a logical one, as rice is such an important staple for Chinese and most other Asians, and up to that time very few labs in the States had been studying rice at the molecular level. Dr. Wu’s lab was one of the few labs selected and invited by the Rockefeller Foundation to submit proposals. The successful funding of this proposal marked the beginning of Dr. Wu’s significant endeavor in rice research in the ensuing years. However, the transition from a non-plant lab to a plant lab was not easy, as at the beginning no one in the lab had had any prior experience with rice. I made a few mistakes that in hindsight were quite laughable! But, the situation soon improved with the addition of several Chinese plant biologists to the lab and an arrangement to use the growth facility at the Boyce Thompson Institute on campus.

I learned a great deal from Dr. Wu about how to be a good mentor and how to effectively manage a research group. Dr. Wu strongly believed that students should be self-motivated and should not be micro-managed. When a student started a new project, Dr. Wu took time to explain the project and help with design of the initial experiments, but afterwards he rarely “bothered” the student. However, we all knew that we could always count on him to help with problems if we approached him for advice. Since Dr. Wu always brought his lunch prepared by Mrs. Wu, Christina, and ate in a small meeting room near the lab, we often had lunch there together with him. This was a valuable opportunity for us to chat with Dr. Wu and discuss our work almost daily. His lunch often consisted of only rice, tofu and vegetables. To this day, my wife insists that this diet symbolizes for her the intellectually keen, engaged, but gentle nature of Dr. Wu. If the saying that “you are what you eat” is true, then this is the diet to follow!

Dr. Wu cared very much about the success of his students, and I would cite one example. Dr. Wu, two graduate students, and I attended the first International Plant Molecular Biology Symposium in Savannah, Georgia in October 1985, and both of my posters were selected for oral presentations. As I had never given any presentation at a conference before, Dr. Wu felt it was necessary to coach me on how to prepare and deliver my presentations. He advised that I write down the lecture while preparing it, so that I could think ahead of time how to best present a coherent story. The night before my first presentation, Dr. Wu asked me to go to his hotel room and rehearse my talk with him and the two graduate students until he was satisfied. It has been more than three decades since my first experience of research presentation, but I still remember very vividly the pieces of advice Dr. Wu gave me, and I still heed his advice and write down each lecture before I deliver it. I also advise my students to do so.

Dr. Wu’s lab always had a number of visiting scientists from China, and both Dr. Wu and Mrs. Wu took great care in helping them settle in and helped them with any problems they might encounter in their daily lives. Dr. Wu and Mrs. Wu regularly invited all the people in the lab, as well as their family members and friends, to their house to celebrate Chinese and Western holidays (e.g., Chinese New Year, Chinese Harvest Festival, Thanksgiving, Christmas). Their house was modest in size, and having more than 20 people there made it seem very cozy. Mrs. Wu was a wonderful cook, and she always cooked most, if not all, of the dishes, herself. I could imagine that she must have put in a lot of time to prepare a feast for so many people. Mrs. Wu’s mother, Mrs. Chen, lived next door to Dr. and Mrs. Wu, and she often joined us. She must have been in her 80s then, but was energetic and fun to be with. Dr. Wu loved to take pictures at the party; many of the pictures from my Cornell days were copies of the pictures he took. Looking at them always brings back many fond memories. Having been able to interact with Dr. Wu in casual settings brought all of us closer and made me appreciate even more what a wonderful mentor and extraordinary human being Dr. Wu was.

I returned to Ithaca a few times after I left in August 1986. The most memorable occasion was the symposium in honor of Dr. Wu’s 70th birthday, which was held on August 15, 1998. Many former students, postdoctors, visiting scientists, and associates of Dr. Wu returned to Ithaca to celebrate this occasion. Dr. Wu hosted a big dinner banquet the night before the symposium for all the participants. He was very pleased to see so many people, some traveling long distances (even from China) to attend.

Dr. Wu’s contributions to science went far beyond the training of his own students and postdocs. For example, he was the major force behind the establishment of the CUSBEA (China-United States Biochemistry Examination and Application) Program, which, between 1982 and 1989, brought more than 400 students from China to study biological sciences in graduate schools in the States. The immense impact this program had on the elevation of Chinese life sciences has been well documented, so I won’t repeat it here. Dr. Wu was also instrumental in the establishment of the Institute of Molecular Biology and the now Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center at Academia Sinica. I “reunited’ with Dr. Wu in recent years through our serving on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Institute of Plant and Microbial Biology at Academia Sinica. The last time I saw him was at an advisory board meeting in June 2007. He looked great and was fully engaged in discussions with PIs and fellow members of the advisory board. His love for taking pictures had not changed, except that this time he had a digital camera. A few weeks after the meeting, he had his assistant send us digital files of the pictures he took, and these were the last pictures taken with him.

I chose to join Dr. Wu’s lab almost 40 years ago with a simple goal of learning recombinant DNA technology so that I could keep up with the new technology, but what I learned during my tenure there has had a much bigger and ever lasting impact on my research career. I am truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for and with Dr. Wu.

Ming-Che Shih – Ray was a great scientist and gentleman. His efforts in promoting agricultural biotechnology research had a lasting impact in the US, Taiwan and China. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center, Academia Sinica. For his life stories, please see https://abrc.sinica.edu.tw/raywu/view.php?aid=3839.