Serendipity

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In late 1980s, the discoverer of p53, Arnold Levine, had two talented postdocs in his lab: Terry Van Dyke and Gigi Lozano. Terry used transgenic mice to demonstrate that blocking p53 was sufficient to cause cancer (SV40 large T mouse brain tumor model), and Gigi proved the function of p53 as a transcriptional factor. They arose in the academic career path and became leaders in the individual research field. When I joined M.D.Anderson at Houston for my Ph.D. study more than twenty years ago, Gigi’s lab was located right downstairs to ours, and later I was involved in a collaborative project with her. One day, Gigi’s postdoc Tammy stopped by our lab to borrow some reagents. We started to chat and became good friends very soon.

After five years, I was preparing to defend my thesis and looking for a postdoc job. I wanted to switch my research to emerging cancer genomics and got an invitation from a big name in microarray analysis at UNC Chapel Hill for an interview. This came in time! I told Tammy about it, but she suggested someone else: “Terry Van Dyke is also at UNC. You have to talk to her. She will be a great mentor for you.”

I did not take her suggestion very seriously. Only when I finished with the interview, I remembered it at the last minute, and went to knock on the door of Terry’s office. She was out of town. It was a great pity but I just let it go and carried on. After two months, I was extremely lucky to get the offer from my current boss. I left Houston for Maryland and have kept working for him since then.

About the time I started my postdoc training, many researchers got so upset about the restriction on biomedical research set by the Administration at that time. The PIs who led the mouse genetics program in NCI quit and moved to Singapore, so NCI was looking for a big name to take the helm. In 2007, Glenn told me NCI had found the right person for that job, and we were going to collaborate with her. In our first meeting, the door was open, and it was Terry walking in! I joked with her that I went to knock on her door two years ago but she answered only today. She laughed.

In the following years, we collaborated with the Terry’ team. I got familiar with all the staff in the team, including Rong. Rong started to work for Terry as a postdoc in UNC and moved to NCI with her. We worked together on many projects; she helped me to find a piece of data needed for a review, which was eventually published in a top-tier journal. I appreciated her very much. After leading CAPR for eight years, Terry decided to retire, so Rong switched to another position. We emailed to each other occasionally but hardly met up in person.

The time ran forward fast to 2018, the year when AACR scheduled its Annual Meeting in Chicago. Tammy has moved to Colorado for many years. She told me she would attend AACR and asked if I was going. I usually don’t have a taste for gigantic meetings like AACR, but the location in that year was magical: it is my good friend and colleague Nella’s beloved hometown, her former mentor was coming, my student wanted to attend and visited her sister there by the way. Another of my friends just got hired by Nella’s former boss at Chicago, and he was coming, too. How could I not go there?

So I flew to Chicago with Nella and my student. Although the weather was terrible- freezing cold in April with showering and snowing- I enjoyed every minute there. Nella showed me several wonderful spots in the city, and introduced me to fantastic Italian foodie places. I had a nice chat with her former mentor. I went out for lunch with Tammy as we have not seen each other for years. In one lunch, Tammy told me an interesting coincidence from the previous day. She was waiting in the long line for a table in a restaurant at lunch hours (kind of validating why I did not like the big meeting). After 30 minutes, finally, she got one. She looked behind and found a Asian lady waiting in the light rain as long as she did. Tammy kindly offered to share a table with her. The woman accepted graciously. From the chat, Tamara learned that the lady was working in NCI. Just for the purpose of chatting, she asked the woman if she knew her friend who also worked in NCI, Chi-Ping Day.

To her stunning surprise, the woman said, “Of course I know Chi-Ping! We have been working together for quite a few years.” That was Rong! Later Tamara organized a small gathering with us to celebrate the reunion of “p53 family”.

How come among thousands of attendees of a meeting in a very big city, two strangers would wait in line together, and find that they were actually deeply connected and knew someone in common, even though they never met before? I don’t know if this is a pure question of mathematical probability; I’d rather see it as serendipity. I do believe goodwill can bring people together, and kindness can give a little miracle. In my point of view, it is the friendship that applied the magic to all of us, letting us remember the moment in Chicago.

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Go to the profile of Juan Angel Recio
21 days ago

Hi Chin-Ping

I love your story, I hope everything is OK

Juan Recio

Go to the profile of Chi-Ping Day
20 days ago

Hi, Juan,

Very nice to hear from you! We are doing well here and running lots of preclinical studies. How are you doing in Spain?

Chi-Ping