Dept. of ChemE Alumnus Dr. James C. WANG Receives the 17th (2022) NTU Distinguished Alumni Award
NTU Distinguished Alumni 2022, academic category, Dr. James C. WANG
Dr. James C. Wang graduated from the Dept. of Chemical Engineering of National Taiwan University in 1959. After receiving a Ph.D. degree in Physical Chemistry from the University of Missouri in the United States in 1964, he went to Caltech (California Institute of Technology) as a researcher under Prof. Norman Davidson. Two years later, he joined the faculty of the Dept. of Chemistry at UC Berkeley, and served as an assistant professor, associate professor, and professor for 11 years. In 1977, he became a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Harvard University. From 1988, he served as a Mallinckrodt Lecturer of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology before he retired in 2005, having taught and worked at Harvard for a total of 28 years.
After retirement, Dr. Wang was invited by the Annual Review of Biochemistry to write an article about his teaching and research career, which was published in the 2009 issue of the journal. His research work is described in more detail in this autobiographic work. Dr. Wang’s dissertation research dealt with transition metal ion complexes, so he knew little about DNA until he arrived at Caltech, where he was introduced to DNA studies by Prof. Davidson. After joining the faculty at UC Berkeley in 1966, he began his research on circular DNA, particularly supercoiled DNA, to investigate the effects of double-helical DNA twisted into supercoils in a three-dimensional space. Dr. Wang’s research led him to further discover in 1971 an enzyme closely related to the various functions of DNA in cells, which was named DNA topoisomerase years later.
The discovery of DNA topoisomerase successfully “untangled” the entanglement problem of DNA inside cells. When the double-helical DNA structure was first introduced, Prof. Max Delbrück of Caltech raised the important question of how the two long, twisted strands could be untangled when the double-helical DNA was replicated in the cell nucleus. The problem of entanglement in DNA replication became more apparent after the discovery of circular DNA in 1960, since the two entangled circular strands cannot be separated without the breakage of at least one of them. Moreover, the problem of entanglement in DNA is not limited to the separation of the two strands in DNA replication. In the preface to Dr. Wang’s 2009 monograph in English, Untangling the Double Helix, he writes, "If a human cell nucleus containing 46 chromosomes is enlarged to the size of a basketball, the total length of DNA in the chromosomes would span 150 miles! Ingenious designs are thus needed to avoid the entanglement of the 46 bundles of DNA into a hopeless mess and to remedy such a situation when the inevitable actually happens. Even in a cell not actively involved in the process of replicating its DNA, many large molecular machineries, including those busily transcribing the genetic information encoded in DNA, track along the DNA helical cables—sometimes tumbling and twirling as they follow the helical path, and other times pulling the DNA through them and forcing the double helix to twist and writhe in space.” Dr. Wang adds, “A family of enzymes, called the DNA topoisomerases, […] work by transiently breaking one of a pair of strands in a DNA double helix; transiently because the broken strand or strands are subsequently rejoined by the same enzyme that did the breakage, but in between the breakage and rejoining events another DNA strand or double helix can pass through the temporarily opened gate in a DNA strand or double helix. Thus DNA topoisomerases permit interpenetration of DNA strands and double helices[…].” Since a DNA strand or double helix can interpenetrate each other, the finding has successfully “untangled” the entanglement problem.
In addition to research, Dr. Wang also cares deeply about education in Taiwan. During his first academic sabbatical in 1970, he served as a National Visiting Professor at the Dept. of Chemistry at NTU for one semester, in which he taught two courses—nucleic acid chemistry and biophysics, both of which were most likely offered for the first time in Taiwan. Nucleic acid is the DNA and RNA which we are familiar with. Still, at that time, nucleic acid chemistry and biophysics were unpopular in Taiwan, and few people, except for the students who took the courses were interested. Many years later, in view of the rapid development of molecular biology, Academia Sinica decided to establish a new Institute of Molecular Biology in Nangang (a district of Taipei City), and several people who participated in the planning strongly recommended Dr. Wang to preside over the establishment of the Institute. However, they also knew that Dr. Wang did not like administrative and personnel matters, and he was busy with teaching and research at Harvard. Hence, they all assumed Dr. Wang would decline the invitation, but to their surprise, Dr. Wang agreed and served for a full year at Academia Sinica.
In 1986, the Molecular Biology Research Building of Academia Sinica was inaugurated, and Dr. Wang started to serve at Academia Sinica at the same time. When people asked him why he agreed to return to work at Academia Sinica, he jokingly said, “I received free education in Taiwan both during high school and university, so I thought I would pay it forward by returning to Taiwan to teach in 1970, but I didn’t know back then that all the students who took my courses would go abroad in a few years, so you can say nothing was left during the six months when I taught in Taiwan. Now that I am back [to work at Academia Sinica], I think I can definitely pay it forward this time.” In fact, Dr. Wang not only returned by himself, but he also persuaded five young scholars to come back and work at Academia Sinica. These five scholars were all talented Taiwanese researchers in their mid-30s or so who have taught in prestigious universities after finishing further studies in the United States. Dr. Wang often says that the age from 35 to 45 is the “golden decade” for biologists, as they are the most “Energetic, imaginative, and having many years of work experience [during this time].” Three of the five scholars who accompanied him back to Nangang in 1986 would return to Taiwan again to engage in long-term research projects many years later. They were also elected academicians of Academia Sinica.
Dr. Wang was elected to Academia Sinica, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the US National Academy of Sciences in 1982, 1984, and 1986 respectively. He often says, “It is a pleasure to have the results of my research recognized, but the greatest pleasure is the process of research… It is truly delightful to work with the world’s best and brightest along the path of teaching and learning.” Years earlier, he once instructed his graduate students to remind him of his wish to retire before reaching 70, unless he would forget this in old age. After retirement, Dr. Wang and his wife moved to the West Coast of the United States near Seattle. At the age of 75, he resigned from all consultative duties and became a “full-time” retiree. His wife graduated from the Dept. of History at National Taiwan University in 1959, and the two of them attended the same class in the fourth and fifth grades in elementary school. The couple have been married for more than 61 years to date. Their two daughters also started their own families, and their grandchildren have grown to adulthood.