Pride goes before what? The great adage, “Pride goes before a fall”(1) comes from the most translated book in the world. So when anyone claims to be first this or that, is that being prideful? For example, I’ve lived in academia for decades, so I’m particularly familiar with the academic desire to be the first to do this or that. So is this desire a problem? That could spoil all the fun!
It’s commonly even wisely said, “The greater the height, the greater the fall.” Warnings like these definitely made me hesitate when I dared to claim to be first whatever. And maybe it wasn’t even polite to claim that!
But it’s really a lot of fun. Phrasing a result as the first whatever sounds really exciting. The first time it was done, the first Asian who did this, the first ethnic Chinese who did that. It definitely all seems to be great fun…I suppose if we don’t go overboard on it!
Indeed in academic research, we are in the business of discovery, to find something new, which by definition means it’s the first time.
Aren’t we even primed as humans to search and discover? And I suspect we actually are “primed” to search and discover, to be pioneering firsts. But to be precise, being first in time doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than others, just it was the earliest! So there’s no need to be too proud, just be joyful!
I had some amusement analyzing some so-called first this or that in my own slightly complicated life. I discovered that, while it was fun, the first whatever was usually a pretty simple matter, and little to be too proud about!
It’s mostly a matter of right time, right place, plus right preparation! I discovered, to my gentle surprise, that there was really not much reason to be puffed up at all. Realistically, others could very well have done it if they had been there, in the right circumstances! But still I was glad to be there. Often it was even a “providential moment”, a tian yi, or heaven’s moment, a blessed moment.
And anyway, someone had to go first. So savor the moment, a satisfying moment! A good smile, a cheerful time to celebrate! But indeed, don’t overdo it!! And remember, we’re usually standing on lots of great, good shoulders.
Except for one who had no shoulders to stand on. Historically, Adam was the most dramatic first, and by definition, the earliest pioneer for innumerable roles! He made no claims, yet 50% of the world considers him as the first. You can’t beat that! The first of the firsts.
And uniquely, there were no great shoulders for him to stand on. Time and place were perfect, but there was no real preparation, nor any particular “merit”, since he was just created humbly from the “dust of the Earth”!
For everyone else, think also poetically of “ancestral genes” from small remote villages. It’s sobering to realize how many things that we are “proud of” today, are directly or indirectly because of our forebears. Often forgotten and unacknowledged, their genes, ancestral village traditions and culture often had great yet subtle bearing on us today. Our lives didn’t start from zero.
And in my own story there were even forgotten, fearless, truly pioneering cross-cultural missionaries who traveled thousands of miles to reach my ancestors and change their lives.
“Asian influx time”. The 1960s was a historic American time of large numbers of foreign Asian students arriving especially from Taiwan and some from Hong Kong. There was a strange fervor throughout the country. You could walk into any university, and easily find a Chinese language group studying the most published book in the world. In Cincinnati this happened, and by 1970, we had morphed into the first Chinese church in Cincinnati, practically as simple as that! It was clearly providential, and way beyond us!
My helpful visionary secondary school. My organizational skills came in handily. They had been honed unconsciously in an Anglican middle/high school in Hong Kong that was heavily focused on developing leadership and character. (2) I thrived in that environment, and became an executive student leader and organizer, as head prefect in this British “public school” (which is actually private!) A great choice by my parents with no input from me! But a perfect preparation for my life and work.
Babies and babies keep rolling out. Timing had a lot to do with my becoming a nutrition expert in neonatology, the care of newly born infants. The field of neonatology itself was literally just being born, and so we first new neonatologists were swept up in the excitement of a new discipline, and the novel research opportunities for understanding our precious babies. Truly as momentous as the actual birth of a baby!
Tunnel vision and focus. My mantra to my students was “focus, focus, focus”. As I became fascinated by and focused on calcium research in babies, I naturally became the first whatever in neonatal calcium nutrition. There was actually even “very little competition”! Perfect timing and place, in my view.
My earlier and ongoing training in scientific investigation and statistics fit perfectly with the time and place. Soon I became jokingly, but affectionately I think, “Mr. Calcium”, which doesn’t really sound like my preferred warm and cuddly persona at all!
What happens when there are only two Asians left? There were only two Asian Chinese doctors on the faculty at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in my early days there. The other one left, and I became the only one remaining, so quickly and naturally I became the “first Asian” this or that, such as Head of a Clinical Division (just requires doing a good job); University Drake Award, the highest academic award (I’m guessing the award committee subconsciously might have decided this role model award should include Asians); Vice-Chairman of Pediatrics (someone’s got to do it) etc. All fun but no need to dwell on these!
只剩两个亚洲人的时候会发生什么？我在辛辛那提儿童医院工作的早期，教职员中只有两位亚裔华人医生。另一位离开之后，我就成为了剩下的唯一一位，于是很快自然而然地成为这个或那个的“第一位亚裔”。例如：临床系系主任（只需要把工作做好就可以了）；学术最高奖 – University Drake奖的获得者（我猜颁奖委员会可能下意识地决定这个榜样奖项应该包含亚裔）；儿科副主任（总得有人做）等等。都是很有趣的，但不必详谈！
Essentially a matter of timing and just being there! Just stick around, things happen!
Forgetting personal credits. As mentioned, I attended a very fine middle/high school. In particular, there was a huge emphasis on teamsmanship, so as the student leader, I instinctively learned how to organize teams of people for many school efforts. Rather than trying to do everything solo and claiming the entire credit.
In my academic life, I made a little triangular desk sign with a motto from Charles Barrett at our Medical School, “It’s remarkable how much work can be done if we don’t worry about credits.” This amazingly useful sign stared approvingly at me every day in my office.
Inspiring young, first authored papers and papers. So step by step, the teams in my life grew, resulting in acquiring research grant after grant (>30 million USD) and lots of team-written scientific papers.
Subconsciously I encouraged my trainee fellows by always giving them first-author positions for their publications. It was fairer, and had the additional happy result of extra-high motivation to write and write loads of papers!
As team leader of different research teams, I was really quite surprised that I soon (quite unintentionally) became the first Asian this or that in receiving national awards in nutrition research. All probably based simply on the sheer volume of our team papers. Just write more papers, I guess; it’s quite simple!
It really just happens. And inevitably the usual sequence in academia seems to be that, step by step, one becomes president of this or that medical society etc. These “honors” are just really part of normal academic development. The fact that I was the first Asian something, was really quite irrelevant. It was just timing and had to happen sooner or later. Just the laws of statistics.
Don’t forget moms! In the USA, pediatrics (usually located in children’s hospitals) is usually much stronger in academic research than obstetrics is. Maybe there are just more pediatricians. The obvious obstetrics research gap became a perfect opportunity for multidisciplinary team research into mother and baby. This field officially became a new field of “perinatal and neonatal research”.
As leaders in newborn baby research, we believed this new perinatal research field could indeed flourish if we drew together researchers from different academic disciplines at our renowned Children’s Hospital. That’s how we readily created the so-called first Perinatal Research Institute in the country, and likely even in the world. Our medical center was conveniently full of highly dedicated scientists who were readily mobilized for this fascinating effort.
Simply because it was the right time and place, and we could rapidly witness the power of working together across many different disciplines. Since the research field was so fresh, all the work across disciplines was really by definition pioneering. It was literally exciting, and easily spurred even greater vision among the research teams.
Dramatic opening of “mysterious” China in the 1980s. When China began opening up in the 1980s, after decades of hiding, it was still considered “mysterious, enigmatic, and unknown”, thus a perfect time to enter to offer help in medical care.
In the Christian spirit, an important emphasis is often on helping when needed. Thus, three of us, Richard with key connections, James with strong spiritual heritage, and I were able to “re-pioneer” medical mission teams going into China. (3)
I use the unusual term re-pioneer, because way before us, for nearly 150 years, tens of thousands of true medical pioneers had been doing this. But they had to leave China in the 1950s. Now we were building on their great broad shoulders.
As I helped in this re-beginning of medical mission work (in my first early retirement), we chose to work particularly in minority and poverty areas, trying to provide medical help and be role models for local doctors and nurses. This mission, aptly named Medical Services International, drew volunteers from all over the world, and continues today, after 28 years, confirming the validity of a sensitive and humble cross-cultural approach.
A program cutely called Bang Bao. Names usually mean something highly significant in Chinese. In perfect timing, in my second retirement effort, after I returned from rural China missions, I focused on training of highly educated China medical scholars.
We were able to do this perfectly through the extensive research and clinical departments of our huge Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. This was often because of my many “perfectly timed”, but previously unplanned, academic connections in China. The program was cutely known as the Bang Bao Program, which means “Nurturing the Precious” in Chinese. (4)
Large numbers of Scholars came to Cincinnati for training. At its peak, we had 100 (!) medical scholars from all major children’s hospitals in China. The China scholars program happened at the right time and place. It was quite amazing, or pioneering, but also seemingly providential! It was quite a shock even to me to see it really happening!
Fun and goals. Don’t get me wrong. Indeed time, place and preparation are usually essential ingredients to bring forth those “firsts”. But, any “credit” we might personally claim is comparatively small. We actually may even have just “come along for the ride”. And, to round out any story, it’s fun often to also include a perspective of, what are the long term, even eternal, impact or potential of any pioneering firsts?
Pioneering is truly a lot of fun, really energizing, and often very meaningful. Good cheers to you if you’re doing such interesting work! But stay humble.
The greatest pioneering, yet humble, astronomer.
The universally acclaimed greatest astronomer in history, Johannes Kepler had the right attitude. He declared that his dramatic truly pioneering attempts to discover the great mysteries of the heavens, which were earthshaking in long term impact, were simply trying to understand how the original very first pioneer, the Creator, thought about His universe. A starkly humbling attitude.
2.Wang, FY and Chan-Yeung, MWM. To serve and to lead: a history of the Diocesan Boys School Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2009
2.Wang, FY, Chan-Yeung, MWM. To serve and to lead: a history of the Diocesan Boys School Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2009 （译注：香港拔萃男书院的历史，由香港大学出版社出版）。