How four sisters from Nanjing came to UTMB, earned advanced degrees at the GSBS, and set up a scholarship for similarly-motivated students
By Judie L. Kinonen
Like most new Ph.D. students, Wenhong Zhou, then twenty-four, was a little nervous that first day of class back in August 1996—still adjusting to her new Galveston apartment, now seated in a room full of strangers, and about to dive headlong into biochemistry. The lecturer began talking, and Wenhong’s classmates settled in quickly, filling the pauses with the muffled sound of pencil on paper. As for Wenhong, she found herself staring in wonder at the professor—her pencil still—growing more apprehensive by the second. This Chinese national was discovering that the language of Great Britain—the one she had studied in China since childhood—was a distant cousin to the language she was now hearing in Southeast Texas.
“I kept thinking, ‘I know he’s speaking English, but what could he be saying?’” she recalled on the sultry afternoon of her commencement in May 2003, giggling at the memory. She was reminiscing with her three older sisters—Wenjing, Wenjun, and Wenxia—who listened to her with closed-mouth smiles, sparkling eyes, and knowing nods. Each has similar stories to tell.
Starting with the eldest, Wenjing, who came to the United States in 1989, each Zhou sister left Nanjing, China, with a Chinese-English dictionary and only enough money to get settled, and with plans to earn a Ph.D. at UTMB’s Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences. Not only did each woman attain her goal, but each excelled in her field of study—Wenjing is a Flushing, N.Y., pediatrician with her own clinic; Wenjun, a tenured member of the physiology faculty in the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio; Wenxia, a postdoctoral fellow of neuroscience at the Medical University of South Carolina; and, finally, Wenhong, a McLaughlin Fellow who completed her doctoral dissertation in immunology and microbiology in the summer of 2002. (Wenhong walked in the 2003 commencement because she missed the deadline for 2002 graduation by several days.)
Wenhong’s sisters returned to campus to cheer at her commencement and to celebrate a new GSBS scholarship established through a $50,000 pledge from Wenjing and her husband, GSBS alumnus Peiqin Geng, to provide financial aid to students in the graduate programs represented by the Zhou family—for Geng, experimental pathology; for Wenjing and Wenhong, microbiology and immunology; for Wenxia and Wenjun’s husband, David Martini, pharmacology and toxicology; and for Wenjun, preventive medicine and community health. Graduate student Benjamin Scott in microbiology and immunology received the first $1,000 “Zhou Sisters Great Expectations Scholarship” in May 2004.
The sisters agree it was their parents’ high expectations that led them to excel academically and make their way to America, and they grow reflective when the talk turns to what each left behind in Nanjing. Wenjing explains how the China in which she and Wenjun grew up—a society closed to the influence of education and Western culture and somewhat resistant to the rise of women—differed vastly from the China the younger two, Wenxia and Wenhong, knew. And it was different still from the China of their parents’ generation.
Their father—orphaned during the six-week Nanjing Massacre beginning in December 1937 in which three hundred thousand people, mainly civilians and prisoners of war, were killed by Japanese troops—never went to college; he managed a detergent factory, and the sisters saw him being passed over for promotions because of his lack of education. Their mother came from a wealthy family, and her brothers all earned advanced degrees in scientific fields. But in a culture that forbade women even to eat at the same dinner table as men, this highly intelligent woman never had a chance to pursue her own academic dreams.
“We were her hope,” says Wenxia, gesturing toward her sisters.
Wenjing recalls sensing her mother’s steady support throughout her educational career. “She didn’t force me but told me, ‘Do what you can and try your best.’” Her “best” thrust Wenjing to the very top of her high school graduating class in the late 1970s and, of five hundred graduates, she was one of only two admitted to college.
It was in pursuing her medical degree in China that Wenjing first studied the English language; likewise, Wenjun had learned no English before working toward her chemical engineering degree. Their younger sisters would have it better. Within the seven-year gap between Wenjun and Wenxia, the Chinese educational system had changed: Wenxia and Wenhong were required to study English from primary school on.
Their parents quietly struggled to ensure their children stayed ahead of the curve. Wenjun remembers as a child overhearing her parents’ murmured conversations about how they would pay for each child’s college tuition. “My father once said he would sell the furniture if required,” she says. Wenhong, too, recalls such a conversation, in which her parents considered borrowing money for their daughters’ schooling. “That was a big stimulus for me,” Wenhong says, her dark eyes steady and serious. “I don’t think I deserve that if I don’t do well.”
“UTMB feels so familiar. I feel warm when I think about my professors and my mentor,” says Wenxia, smiling sincerely. “This feels like home.”
The sisters’ superior academic records set them up for impressive careers at home, but they decided instead to vie for visas for advanced study in America, where scientific education was on the cutting edge. Wenjing’s husband, Geng, was the first family member to learn about UTMB, intrigued after meeting Dr. David Walker, chair of pathology, who had visited the Beijing hospital where Geng worked in 1988. After Geng gained admission, Wenjing—who had already earned her M.D. degree in China—followed her husband to Texas, earning her Ph.D. in 1996; Geng earned his master’s degree in pathology in 1991. The couple paved the way for Wenjun, a chemistry instructor who left for the States in 1990. She met her husband, David Martini, at UTMB; Martini would earn his master’s degree in pharmacology in 1993 and Wenjun would complete her degree in 1998. The younger two Zhou sisters left home together in 1996; Wenxia finished her degree in 2001.
For all of them, UTMB was a microcosm of the technologically superior America they had heard so much about—and it did not disappoint. “When I first came here, I was very excited. It was a new world,” Wenjing says, smiling. “I thought, ‘I’ve got lots to learn.’” She and Wenjun worked as a team during their UTMB years, babysitting each other’s children—Wenjing’s born in 1987 and Wenjun’s born in 1993—and juggling time for family with time for intense study. Wenjun recalls that simply deciphering her tape-recorded lectures sometimes took hours.
Dean Cary Cooper of the GSBS says the sisters were not only “outstanding students, but they were mutually supportive, committed to helping each other.” The sisters themselves attribute their success at UTMB to patient professors who boosted them over the obstacles of language and culture. “UTMB feels so familiar. I feel warm when I think about my professors and my mentor,” says Wenxia, smiling sincerely. “This feels like home.”
Wenhong also thanks her mentor and professors for their guidance, and she finishes the story of her first day in biochemistry class by noting that her professor, Dr. William Fleischmann, called her after the first test to offer his help. “He said, ‘Hold on, you will get over this difficult stage,’” she recalls. Wenhong grew sentimental walking around campus with her sisters on graduation day, and said one thought echoed in her mind: “What will I be doing in ten, twenty, or thirty years that will make UTMB proud of me?”