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If you like David Ho's story, you might also like:
Paul Farmer,
John Gearhart,
Jeong Kim,
Antonia Novello,
Jonas Salk and
Bert Vogelstein

David Ho also appears in the video:
Frontiers of Medicine

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  David Ho

What was your ambition growing up?

David Ho: I was always interested in pursuing science, not because of any particular role model, but because I was curious. I wanted to learn about things, ask questions. As I came to the U.S., I naturally gravitated in that direction, not so much in medical science at first, but in physics and related topics. I went to Cal Tech to study physics, although during the later years I developed an interest in the new molecular biology, and that was what led me to into medical research.

Didn't you also spend some time at MIT?

David Ho: As an undergraduate I spent one year at MIT and three years at Cal Tech. I got into both schools, and I had a great deal of ambivalence about where to go. People were kind enough to allow me to set up a hybrid program and I got to experience both institutions. Obviously, I had to devote more time at one than the other, and I was attracted to Cal Tech because of figures like Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, giants of physics.

When books were extremely important to you when you were growing up?

David Ho: I was reading a fair amount of science fiction as well as science written for the general public. Although some of it was certainly way over my head, I still remember reading books by Isaac Asimov, science fiction stories, and also books by physicists, talking about things that normal people can't readily conceive of, like anti-matter. It was just interesting to try to think in that way, even though I wasn't understanding everything.

I was curious about all these things I couldn't understand and I tried to learn more by reading more. Gradually a little bit would sink in. Looking back, I must admit my understanding was quite sketchy, but it was that kind of curiosity that drove me into science. I remember going to the library and trying to look at the Feynman lectures in physics. That's very fundamental physics, nothing too fancy, but presented in his unusual style. I hadn't taken all the requisite courses before reading it, I was just very interested by it.

How did your parents respond to your choice of physics and then molecular biology?

David Ho: My parents never tried to influence my decisions. They pretty much left it up to me. I wasn't a troubled child. I was doing well in school, so they said to do what you like, which is the same attitude I now have with my own kids: "Just do what you like. You have to pursue what you're interested in. Just do it well, whatever you pick."

Why did you switch from physics to molecular biology?

David Ho Interview Photo
David Ho: In high school my biology was just trying to remember the names of various animal species, plant species, and it was not all that exciting. But in my sophomore and junior year of college, I realized that there was a lot of fascinating new biology coming along. The era of molecular biology using recombinant DNA techniques was also just emerging, and that was fascinating. That hit me the same way some of the questions in the physical sciences did.

I got very interested and could appreciate the fact that medical research based on the new biology could have immediate applications if one were to apply those techniques to specific illnesses. I was most interested in things like particle physics and astrophysics, but those things are much less tangible day to day. In trying to talk to your friends and relatives, it's very hard to convey what you're actually doing and why you're doing it. Through a long and slow period I finally decided that I was going to continue to pursue science in the form of medical research. I had already taken enough biology and other courses to meet the requirements for medical school, so I made the transition. I wanted to pursue science, because it's what I loved to do. But the fact that by pursing medical science you could also indirectly help people, made it even more a reason for doing that.

I understand also playing a little blackjack at that time?

David Ho: I would rather call it an exercise in probability and statistics. I read a little paperback book called Beat the Dealer, by a mathematician with a computer background who tried to calculate all the odds and concluded that even if you played perfectly, you can't beat the dealer except by varying your bet. By counting the cards, you could increase your bet if the situation is in your favor and when the situation is against you, you decrease your bet. In the end you could actually win. So I tested that on a very modest scale. I could count cards with reasonable efficiency to make sure that I don't lose, but I never did win much money. But you know, in casinos they don't like people to count cards, so if they spot you doing that they get you out. The dealer could very quickly tell whether you know how to play or not. If all the face cards have been played, the aces have been played, and only small cards are left, which is a situation in favor of the dealer you are decreasing your bet. On the other hand, when there are only huge cards left and you increase your bet, they get suspicious. Many of them are very good players themselves, that's why they're hired as dealers. I always learned a lot of games because it's one of those intellectual challenges, so I played chess rather seriously also. I don't have time for it these days.

How did medical school change you? Did it change your personality or your outlook?

David Ho: Medical school per se did not change my personality. It was difficult for me to adjust at the beginning. At Cal Tech where we had take-home exams, they were very difficult problems. You could open any book you want, you just have to solve problems. In medical school you had to memorize everything. That transition initially was difficult. In terms of personality, the biggest event in my life was coming to the States from Taiwan. From being a fairly outgoing child I retreated and became rather reserved for a number of years. It took the late high school years, college years and medical school years, to reemerge, having gained greater confidence.

Was there a teacher along the way who was especially important to you?

David Ho: There were teachers who put in a lot of effort to make sure I learned English. There were teachers in junior high school who appreciated the fact that even though my English wasn't up to par, I was particularly good in certain classes, and put me in with the more advanced students despite the language handicap. In high school, there were teachers who recognized my particular interest in chemistry and physics, and allowed me to do more than the usual students.

Who made the greatest impression on you growing up, as a mentor?

David Ho: My father is an engineer. He came over to study and he had a circle of friends, most of whom also came from Taiwan or China to pursue either engineering or science, and there were a lot of accomplished individuals that we saw on a regular basis. My uncle was a graduate student in chemistry at Cal Tech. These people were really quite accomplished. That immediate circle had a very positive influence on me.

From a distance, I was beginning to recognize some of the big role models in science. Even as a child, one of course hears about Einstein. I had known about Richard Feynman for a long time before he became more popular with the general public. There were two young scientists who got the Nobel Prize in their early '30s for working on particle physics. I think it was 1957. They worked in New York, on parity of charge and spin of subatomic particles. Their names are Yang and Lee, they were both from mainland China. From a distance they served as great role models.

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This page last revised on Feb 29, 2008 12:37 EST
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