My dear readers, this week I come back to you with the story of a magnificent Chinese lady, Dr. Chen Wei, a major general and the Chinese military’s top epidemiologist. A few days ago, she joined three other leading Chinese scientists to be awarded the title of “People’s Hero” by Chinese President Xi Jinping for her outstanding achievements in basic research on Covid-19 and the development of vaccine and protective medicine. Her vaccine is now is phase-III trials.
While women these years are playing a more prominent role in the Chinese society, for one of them to claim such an honour it is still worth some extra attention. Watching her walk with her back straight and chin up on TV, I became curious about her story and did a little digging myself.
I was surprised to find that Dr. Chen was quite a sweet girl in her younger days, not like the tough military general she is today. She went to Tsinghua, China’s most privileged university which has a particular strength in natural sciences. It is common knowledge in China that in Tsinghua girls are a rarity, because they generally prefer humanities as their major.
On a campus full of nerdy boys, Chen, a pretty girl with long hair and a good sense of fashion, was secretly admired as the “Tsinghua Goddess”.
If everything had gone according to the script, Chen Wei would have gotten a high-paying job in a big corporate or go abroad for further studies. She would have married someone from her peers and the two of them would become a successful, high-achieving couple.
But life would not have it. An errand to China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences nearing her graduation changed the course of her life. This mysterious institution tasked to protect the country against biowarfare was so fascinating to Chen that she decided to give up her job offer in a leading medical company and join the military.
Her choice was little understood by those around her. But she was convicted. And that was the beginning of her decades-long devotion to medical research in the military and a brilliant career.
In 2003, Her team developed a nasal spray against SARS that protected tens of thousands of front-line workers.
As early as in 2004 when Ebola was little known, Dr. Chen already sensed its danger and began her research. Although not many were supportive of her focus, she persisted for 10 years.
In 2014, Ebola hit Africa. Dr. Chen travelled all the way to Sierra Leone to gather data for her vaccine.
In September that year, her team developed the world’s first Ebola vaccine that entered clinical trial. She was known as the terminator of Ebola. Today, she is again leading the global effort to find a vaccine for Covid-19.
Dr. Chen also has a very romantic love story. She met her husband Ma Yiming, a technician for a beer factory, on the train. Back in those days when the Chinese society was quite conservative, in the eyes of many, Chen was way out of Ma’s league: one was a pretty girl with an elite education, a scientist-to-be; the other was a mere factory worker, not highly educated, not very handsome, and much older than her. And to meet on the train! It was too unorthodox. But the love birds were not deterred. They got married and started a lifelong companionship that proved nourishing for both. Ma Yiming is very supportive of Dr. Chen’s work.
He would always say, “My wife is destined to do something great. I would not have her wasting her talents in house chores.” So he took over almost all the household duties and took good care of their only son. Every night when Dr. Chen burns the mid-night oil in her lab, he would come to pick her up when she finishes.
Dr. Chen has made her name in the world of science.
But there is nothing coincidental about her success. Throughout her career and life, she has been her own woman. She follows her heart in making all the important decisions and sticks to them for years with patience and perseverance. May we all, men and women alike, have the same conviction.