Story by Erin Hallissy
As a kid in Hong Kong, Carl Wu '74 decided that when he grew up he wanted to "figure out how nature worked." His years spent studying science and working in labs at Saint Mary's began his journey on an illustrious path as a biochemist and molecular biologist, and he was rewarded in April by being elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences — one of the highest honors in American science.
Wu, 53, is the chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute, where he and his team study gene regulation, which ultimately can help lead to preventing and treating cancer. He greeted the news of his election with humility, and thanked his old friends and professors at SMC, many of whom remain involved in his life.
"The people who had the greatest influence on me were Professor Lawrence Cory, Allen Hansell and John Correia," Wu said in a telephone interview from his office in Bethesda, Md. "They were available practically the whole day, which made it very easy for me to see the college experience as more than just a series of classes. It was almost like taking a tutorial for four years."
Wu went to a Christian Brothers high school in Hong Kong. He described his family as "modest," but his parents believed strongly in the importance of learning and Wu was an ardent student who loved going to the library. His parents could not have afforded to send him to Saint Mary's, but then-president Brother Mel Anderson arranged a scholarship for Wu, who now calls it "one of the major events in my career."
"I owe him a lot," Wu said.
After graduating from Saint Mary's, Wu received a doctorate in biology from Harvard, where he also did post-doctoral research. He has worked for the National Cancer Institute since 1982, reaching his current position as chief in 1996. Wu and his associates work with baker's yeast, fruit flies and mice to further the understanding of how cells grow and divide, and how normal gene regulation works.
"The basic research we do will hopefully lead toward reaching that goal" of improving the ways of preventing and treating cancer," he said. "Out of this community, good things will happen."
In December 2005, the journal Nature cited Wu's work at the National Cancer Institute as a milestone in the field of gene expression.
Wu and his wife, Gisela Storz, a microbiologist at the National Institutes of Health, have three children, Ella, 9; Toby, 8, and Felix, 6. He doesn't have time for many hobbies now, but still enjoys listening to music, studying history, jogging and yoga when he's not working in the lab or driving the kids to soccer and hockey practice.
Wu rarely gets a chance to visit Saint Mary's now, but was at the dedication of the new science building, Brousseau Hall, in 2000.
But even though he may not return often, Saint Mary's remains a part of his life and his work. He says the Seminar in particular is very memorable, and even the Integral Program had an impact on him although he was not in it.
"The rub-off of that program onto the rest of the curriculum made it a very important experience," he said. "A liberal arts education is about the big questions of life. Science at its core is actually very broad. I found this kind of experience very useful because it makes you think about the big questions."