When his former thesis advisor, Paul Modrich won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2015, Professor Woei-Horng Fang was invited to the ceremony. Prof Fang, who is the Associate Professor at the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences and Medical Biotechnology, College of Medicine, National Taiwan University (NTU), was a PhD student in Dr Modrich’s laboratory at Duke University in North Carolina in the early 1990s. He recalled exciting and grueling times as a 34-year-old completing a thesis on DNA mismatch repair. “I was working 70-hour weeks: 10 hours a day, seven days a week. It was amazing to have seen ground-breaking research on familial colorectal cancer and see the impact on medicine,” he said.
Today, Prof Fang guides both undergraduate and graduate students at NTU in molecular biology and clinical chemistry research and practice. “It is fantastic when you have students who are talented and interested in research. I also experienced the new generation of students who are very distracted by their devices. My approach is to treat them as adults and I’ll mention it once at the beginning of class that they need to exercise self-control. My job is to figure out the experiments to engage their interest,” he said.
Today, students are no longer satisfied with just a graduate degree and the majority go on to pursue post graduate studies.
In many ways, Prof Fang’s professional journey is intertwined with the evolution of laboratory medicine as an educational discipline in Taiwan. Standing in the laboratory where he graduated with a Master’s degree in Biochemistry nearly 30 years ago, Prof Fang talked to Roche Diagram magazine about the changes he has seen over the years.
It was in 1950 that the National Taiwan University Hospital first established a central laboratory to provide clinical diagnostics support for the hospital. “Those days, the laboratory personnel were high school graduates, who after a brief period as trainees, took on basic laboratory work,” he said. This changed after the hospital invited Dr Davison, the Dean of Duke University’s medical school as a visiting consultant. As part of a complete reform of medical education in Taiwan, Dr Davison recommended that NTU create a separate School of Medical Technology to train students in clinical laboratory science. Dr Davison also helped establish a ‘Duke University Fellowship Program’ to enable Taiwanese medical technology students to pursue advanced studies in the United States. Taiwan’s ministry of education also instituted grants to support systematic training for advanced research. “The reason I chose Duke for my PhD was because of its history with our department at NTU,” Prof Fang said.
When Prof Fang returned to Taiwan after his PhD, he went back to NTU to teach students. He said that in the early years, the School of Medical Technology was not very successful. “They enrolled maybe 10 students per year in the first few years. Being a doctor or surgeon was very prestigious and when people heard the term ‘medical technology’ they thought the degree would train them to become doctors. Most of the graduates would go to the US or Japan to study medicine or dentistry. Very few of the original graduates actually stayed in laboratory science.”
Today, students are no longer satisfied with just a graduate degree and majority go on to pursue postgraduate studies. The department started offering a Master’s program in 1997 and established a PhD program in 2002. These developments kept pace with technological advances in healthcare diagnostics such as molecular diagnostics, nuclear assays, real time PCR and next generation sequencing. “Every time a new technology became practical, we quickly adopted it into our teaching materials.” In recognition of these developments, the department changed its name to include biotechnology in 2005. “We felt that medical technology was an obsolete term and the name we have now is more reflective of the training we provide to our students.”
Graduates of the program pursue teaching, research or work in hospital laboratories. “Today, a very high percentage of our graduates choose to go back to clinical laboratory science. In this hospital itself we have several graduates from our department. Our PhD students go on to become professors at other universities,” Prof Fang said. The department too has grown from less than 10 junior faculty to 15 full-time faculty today. “When I was an undergraduate student here, the Department was short of faculty and dominated by doctors who had done some laboratory work. Few people had a Master’s degree and almost nobody had a PhD. Now, all of our faculty hold PhDs and across different disciplines like biochemistry, microbiology, tumour biology and haematology,” Prof Fang said.
The reason I chose Duke for my Ph.D was because of its history with our department at NTU.
Prof Fang has recently been reelected for the second term as the President of the Chinese Association for Clinical Biochemistry in Taiwan and hopes to improve collaborative efforts across biomedical disciplines. “There is always more need for better diagnostics within a hospital or research setting.” He also hopes to increase awareness of the various career options available to students: “The stereotype still exists that if you study laboratory science, you have to take an exam, get a license and work in a hospital laboratory. But we tell students that this is not the only way you can go. Today, armed with the knowledge of frontier biotechnology there are many options: you can go into teaching or academic research or the commercial side. You can be an innovator.”