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A Radical NotionDung Hoang

A Radical Notion (continued)

AT ABOUT THE TIME when Xiaobin Wang was starting to read and ready to enter school, China’s educational system ground to a halt as a result of the Cultural Revolution.

While her classmates languished in illiteracy, Wang devoured state-approved biographies of great scientists like Marie Curie. Her parents, neither privileged nor wealthy, delighted in their daughter’s intellect. So did teachers who had few reasons to find joy in their profession. Her mastery of lessons elicited praise, which in turn accelerated Wang’s learning. She skipped the sixth grade; then the 12th. In 1978, China started reforming education just in time for Wang to distinguish herself on a national exam that landed her at Beijing University where she started medical school at the impressionable age of 16.

How had Wang mustered both physical and intellectual fortitude in an impoverished and corrosive environment while others around her withered? Posing that question—why does one baby, one child, one adult, have a markedly different outcome from most others despite all else appearing equal?—ultimately became central to her research.

First, she wanted to know why some women who smoke have low-birth-weight babies, while others who smoke have normal-sized babies. Next, she wanted to understand why so many minority women living in poverty have preterm births while others living and working next to them have healthy, full-term babies.

As she investigated what part genes contributed to the puzzle and what part environment, she became convinced that there is crosstalk among dozens if not hundreds of factors—nutrition and smoking and genetic variables, just to name a potent few. Each single threat to health and well-being is difficult enough to study on its own. A “real-world” assessment involves the complication of a multitude of other threats that may exacerbate that original threat. And an even more accurate measure involves accounting for buffers that may temper some threats. Not one to shy away from seemingly insurmountable challenges, Wang insists on considering all the in utero variables she can conceive of—whether bad or potentially beneficial—no matter that this exponentially complex task has required her to devise novel methods of research.

It’s good science that compels her to consider the oft-neglected protective factors that engender resilience in the face of harsh societal or environmental factors. And it’s something more, something personal. If you talk to Wang for any length of time, you’ll be impressed by the force of gratitude that gushes from her for her parents and school- teachers as well as the likes of Guyer and Zuckerman, whom she describes as lifetime mentors. “From my elementary school to now, I have been extremely fortunate to have so many wonderful teachers, mentors and role models,” she says. “Their vision, leadership, knowledge, guidance and encouragement have greatly influenced my pursuit for education, training and research in medicine and public health.”

The mentor who awaited Wang when she entered Beijing University was Professor Gongshao Ye, a preeminent pediatrician who established the field of maternal-child health in China and authored a definitive textbook used for 30 years. “She told me that one ounce of prevention was worth more than 10 ounces of treatment,” Wang says.

She also told Wang to head to the U.S. after med school for further training. That advice set the young woman on a trajectory that twice would land her at Johns Hopkins, first as a doctoral student of perinatal epidemiology in the 1990s with Bernie Guyer as her advisor; and now again in 2012 as a named professor and center director. Here and now, she’s poised to fully answer the question that has occupied her since her early days: What causes preterm birth?

When it first occurred to her that question needed answering, the Barker Hypothesis was simmering on a back burner; epigenetics was not yet commonplace in scientific discourse. She was a pediatric resident at the Boston Medical Center. By then, her parents’ mandate to Work Toward Hope had gestated for some 30 years.

Comments

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  • Graciela Bernardo

    Neuquén- Argentina 05/29/2012 06:54:22 PM

    Congratulations! I´m a midwife and work for the healths of mothers and their babies. I´m very happy with you investigation.. Continue Best wishes!!

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