PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD: Meet Shu Chien, UCSD and bioengineering legend

Shu Chien, recently retired founding chair of UCSD's bioengineering department, helped pioneer the study of blood flow as an engineering issue.

Recently, a symposium was held at UC San Diego to celebrate the contributions made by Shu Chien to the fields of bioengineering and medicine. Because of how many there were, the event lasted 15 hours over two days.

One of only 11 scholars in the United States to be a member of all three national academies (sciences, engineering and medicine), Chien has helped define the cardiovascular subdivision of bioengineering, a field that has given rise to such things as the heart pacemaker and stents. He has spent decades demystifying how blood flow works, and why things go wrong.

In the Jacobs School of Engineering, “Be like Shu” has actually become a catchphrase — with faculty members holding up the Beijing-born scientist, whose brilliant mind comes with a virtually non-existent ego — as the example of how not only to succeed in research, but in life.

Now, at age 88, Chien — who joined the UC San Diego faculty from Columbia University in 1988 — is entering semi-retirement, giving up teaching and his endowed chair to focus on research. He and his wife, K.C., have also moved from their La Jolla Farms house to a retirement home in University City. Chien spoke to this newspaper during his final week as bioengineering chair.

Do you think you’ll miss all this?

“It’s not like stepping down totally. It’s a soft landing, gradually. It’s good. This office I may give up, because I have another in the building where my labs are, but I will continue to do research. I actually have four research grants that I will continue to work on.”

How did it feel listening to people speak about how great you are for two days? Was it like attending your own funeral?

“I would say it was the most memorable event of my life. It was beyond me. I was totally overwhelmed. But I think they were too kind, too generous. I did not feel like it was a eulogy, but in a way, that was analogous.”

Did you imagine what your retirement would be like in the past, and is this what you imagined?

“Actually, I never thought about what it would be like when I’m 80 or above. My father lived to be 75, my mother 67. So I never thought about getting older than 70, and now I’m approaching 90. It’s unreal. It’s really great. I enjoy everything. I have nothing but gratitude.”

You originally wanted to become a mathematician, but you went pre-med at Columbia because you didn’t have enough math credits.

“Yes. Mathematics is my first love. When I was in elementary school, I felt numbers were so interesting to me. I could play with them. The only reason I didn’t go into math is because I skipped my senior year of high school to go for my college examination, then each subject required certain courses.”

Do you regret not becoming a mathematician?

“No. In life, I never look back. Whatever is, that’s how it’s meant to be.”

Do you think you would have made a similar mark in math?

“I would have done very well in math. But I would not be working with people as much. That’s the one thing. Mathematicians, in general, are in their office, deriving formulas and proofing equations. And not working with people as much as in medicine or engineering, which I like.”

Of all the awards you’ve received, which is your favorite?

“I think the National Medal of Science is most precious. President Obama gave that to me. Also, being elected to several national academies. People generally think of the National Academy of Sciences as the highest one, but the National Academy of Engineering is most precious to me because I’ve never formally been educated as an engineer.”

But you looked at the processes of the heart as an engineer would look at them.

“Right. Anatomy is the structure and the function, which is physiology. So those two aspects require an engineering approach — especially the function. In the old days, when I was a medical student, there was very little engineering involved in medicine.”

What got you interested in researching blood flow?

“After medical school, I had to pick a research subject. I had two major interests. One is the brain. I think the mental functions makes people different from animals. The other is the heart. If the cardiovascular system doesn’t work, that’s when we die.

It just so happened, the chair of physiology at Columbia came to Taiwan, where I was a medical student. He met with a dozen of us, chatting. He said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m debating whether to go into neurophysiology at Minnesota or cardiovascular at Columbia.’ He said, ‘Why are you thinking? You just come to Columbia.’ I felt it was an equal choice, but here is the chairman, who wanted me to go.”

That sounds like a pretty major decision to place in the hands of fate.

“I’m not that religious, but it seems to be that it’s meant for me to go this way. There are some forces that I cannot describe, that get channeled. And whatever gets channeled, you do the best with it and never regret the what-if.”

How’s your own heart? Do you have any hardening of the arteries?

“I do, yes. And in my heart, I had a stent put in. I just happened to do a non-invasive test of the cardiovascular system and they discovered the coronary artery was somewhat narrowed. It was a borderline case. My doctor asked me whether he should do it or not. I said, ‘Go for it.’ I’m a risk-taker. When I have two choices, I always go for the more risky one with a better possible result.”

You mentioned that you’ve outlived your parents by many years. To what do you attribute that?

“My mother died of tuberculosis. If I did not have that stent put in, who knows? Maybe five years later, I would have developed a heart attack. It’s hard to say. But I think nowadays, we owe our lives to medical advances.”

Some of which you played a part in developing.

“I contributed a little bit.”

So it’s fair to say that you kept yourself alive a little bit then.

“I don’t want to take the credit, but thank you.”

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