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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

July 22, 2005

From pencil maker to vaccine researcher

Kan Wang

Kan Wang

by Teddi Barron

Next month, plant scientist Kan Wang will return to her native China for a special reunion. She won't be catching up with distant cousins or reminiscing with school classmates, though. She'll reunite with employees of the pencil factory where she was assigned to work in 1975.

Wang is associate professor of plant molecular biology in the agronomy department and director of the Center for Plant Transformation. A pioneer in biopharmaceuticals, ag biotech's newest arena, she engineered corn to produce a therapeutic protein to protect humans and animals from diarrhea caused by bacterial infections.

How a little girl destined to work an assembly line landed light years away in a major university plant biotech lab is an extraordinary tale of luck and pluck. Initiative and inertia. Resilience and diligence.

Mao's China

Wang grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), a social-political experiment to rid the Communist Party of intellectual and bourgeois influences. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, imprisoned, persecuted or forced into manual labor. Economic activity halted, universities closed, and cultural and historical artifacts were destroyed.

As was common practice at the time, Kan was raised by her grandparents, rather than her parents. Her grandfather selected the name Kan, which means "candid, honest, straightforward." Ironically, his outspokenness the year she was born later sealed the family's fate. He openly criticized Chairman Mao's wife -- while it was still okay to do so -- and was labeled an extreme rightist, anti-revolutionary. When the Cultural Revolution started nine years later, he was punished for his politics. He was demoted from high-level accountant to neighborhood janitor. The entire family was marked, ostracized and banished to the wrong side of the political tracks.

"When I was 9, the Red Guards came into our home to search for guns or whatever they considered inappropriate at the time. It was very scary," Wang said. "Overnight, I became a 'bad' kid from a 'bad' family. For my punishment at school, I had to clean the bathroom. I felt like I was nothing. It was horrible, humiliating."

It also was catalytic.

"That treatment hurt me so much that I always tried to outperform everybody to prove my value," she said.

Like most Chinese institutions, the K-12 educational system all but disappeared during the Cultural Revolution. Students recited Mao's writings and ridiculed intellectuals and other anti-revolutionaries.

"For six years, I went to school and learned nothing," Wang said.

So, she and friends started an underground school. They secretly passed around math, physics and English books.

"It was like a secret book club. We were starved for knowledge and loved homework. We thought it was fun," Wang said. "We taught each other. We even taught ourselves how to build a radio from second-hand parts."

After high school graduation, the government determined where young people were to go, what they would to do with their lives. Some were mandated to settle in remote rural areas; others were ordered to factory work in the cities. It was totally random, with one exception. An only child remained with older parents to provide their old-age care. Such was Wang's fate. She stayed in Shanghai and was sent to work at the pencil factory.

"I was so happy that I could stay in the city and be an assembly line worker. That was the highest status I could ever expect to reach. I was quite content the first two years," she said.

By about 1975, government leaders began to realize that the young employees lacked the knowledge and skills necessary to be good workers. A group at the pencil factory -- the ones Wang will see at the reunion -- were trained systematically. Their days were split between assembly line technical training and high school equivalency classes. After two years, Wang received her permanent assignment.

"I had to work with the big oven and the glue. It was the worst assembly line in the factory. I had migraines every day," she said. "I didn't think I'd ever have the option to do anything else," she said.

End of an era

Then the Cultural Revolution ended.

Universities were re-opened and entrance exams offered. Kan and her friends, including her childhood neighbor and future husband Ling, embraced the opportunity. In preparation, she studied English vocabulary on homemade flash cards while waiting for the glue or the oven on the assembly line.

"We had absolutely no clue whether or not we were up to the task. But we gave the entrance exam a shot. That was a turning point," she said.

"My grandmother has since asked me this question: If I had not been assigned the absolutely worst job at the pencil factory, would I have taken the entrance exam? I probably wouldn't have. The factory was a comfortable place otherwise, and many of my friends who could have taken the exam, didn't," she said.

Wang passed with flying colors and entered a program in biology/biochemistry. She became part of a lost generation of students who suffered from the lack of higher education. There was a 10-year range in the ages of her classmates.

"Our first year was very difficult. We worked extremely hard and didn't socialize. The students who were 10 years older could comprehend things faster. They were older when the Cultural Revolution started and benefited from more years of better schooling," she said.

The next step

After 10 years of a society without college graduates, there were no jobs for the first graduates. Wang applied to graduate school, earning the second highest score of students in biology from her university.

"For the first time, I was not measured by my family's background, but rather by my own merit," she said.

By 1982 when she applied to graduate school Ph.D. programs, Western countries had started to open their doors to China. The Chinese government sent top students from every discipline to graduate school in the West.

Although she applied for human genetics, she was sent to the University of Ghent in Belgium to a plant genetics program. Her professor insisted she go because "it was the best lab of its kind."

At the same time, her childhood sweetheart Ling received a graduate scholarship from the University of Notre Dame. A few weeks before he left for the United States, they married. The young couple lived apart for the next eight years.

"We knew we'd be apart immediately, but marriage was the commitment we wanted so we wouldn't grow apart," she said. Married for 22 years, they have two children, Evelyn, 13, and Alex, 10.

Sponge for knowledge

At the University of Ghent, Wang flourished in the molecular biology lab of Marc Van Montague, who pioneered plant genetic engineering.

For one of the first times in her life, she was asked to choose what she wanted to do.

"It was very scary to have the responsibility of deciding my research project," she said. "I told Marc that I had a question about how the DNA from bacteria got delivered to the plant, hoping that he would tell me. Instead, he said, 'That's your project, find the answer.'"

With no preparation or skills for molecular biology research when she arrived in Belgium, Kan was proactive and worked hard to catch up.

"I really thrived under the freedom of Marc's lab. I was like a sponge, absorbing knowledge like crazy. Of course, I was standing on the shoulders of giants. But I worked hard, was observant and when opportunity came, I grabbed it," she said.

Her diligence paid off in a big way. In her second year, Wang published a paper in a leading life science journal, Cell. The following year, she published in one of the most prestigious journals, Science; then co-authored a paper in another top journal, Nature.

Wang continued in Van Montague's lab as a post doctoral fellow. After a brief return to China, she eventually landed a research position in 1989 with ICI Seeds (now Syngenta) in Slater. She continued to work in crop genetic engineering, still in its infancy. After six years, she joined the faculty at Iowa State.

With support from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, ISU administrators and talented graduate students, she has successfully pursued the development of a vaccine in corn. This year's field trial is well under way. The corn harvested will be used in animal feeding studies and for analysis of efficient means to extract and purify the therapeutic protein.

And while the corn is growing to maturity, Wang has an appointment to keep with old friends at the pencil factory.


"Of course, I was standing on the shoulders of giants. But I worked hard, was observant and when opportunity came, I grabbed it."

Kan Wang