When Zhijian “James” Chen was just a boy in an isolated village in Fujian Province, China, his father handed him a government-sanctioned newspaper article that changed his life. It was 1978, and the story, pushed out to revive an economically ravaged nation after the Cultural Revolution, might seem a strange source of inspiration for a child. But this was no typical propaganda theme.
It described a man called Chen Jingrun, one of China’s greatest mathematicians, who lived and breathed math, an existence both eccentric and tantalizingly alien to a 12-year-old boy in a remote mountain village most famous for its tea. The way James Chen relates it now, this man’s life story, promoted even in comic books, motivated a generation of Chinese children to pursue science, including James Chen himself.
Perhaps unconsciously, Chen has since walked a similar intellectual path to that of Chen Jingrun, living his own life-of-the-mind in an unrelenting quest to uncover minute details of the inner lives of cells. And the Chinese authorities had a hand in that outcome, too. Chen initially hoped to study physics, but the powers that be determined that, instead, he should study biology at Fujian Normal University. “Maybe the government knew better,” he says today, smiling. Given that he’s now a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and is sitting in a sunlit upper-floor office at a premier U.S. research center, maybe so.