When a poisonous spider bit a young Jiang He on the hand, his mother put a chopstick in his mouth, wrapped his hand in wine-soaked cotton, and set the cotton on fire.
As Jiang explained in his speech, there is some scientific basis for this folk remedy, the only kind available in his native village in China’s Hunan Province. Nevertheless, the searing pain he felt that day drove Jiang to seek out more modern answers in biochemistry.
It was a long way to graduate school at Harvard from the remote, rural village where Jiang grew up in a traditional farming family. The village didn’t get electricity until the 1990s, and the Jiangs continued using oil lamps to save money. They and their neighbors dug their own wells for drinking water.
“Educational resources were also limited,” said Jiang. He and his brother walked 90 minutes over mountainous terrain to their cheaply built school, which once collapsed in a rainstorm. The math teacher was moonlighting from his primary job as a butcher.
“Back then, I could never imagine myself getting out and studying at places like Harvard,” Jiang said. He’d never set foot in a city or used a computer when, in 2005, he entered college, the first in his family to do so.
Jiang, who earned his Harvard Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology, recently became a postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with his name on studies in The Journal of Cell Biology, The Journal of Experimental Medicine, and other scholarly periodicals.
His research at Harvard focused on developing single-molecule imaging techniques and applying them to the study of biological processes, especially flu virus infection.
More generally, Jiang wants to bring advances in medicine to underserved communities such as the one he came from. He hopes the newly minted scientists and doctors in the audience at Commencement will think about how to do the same.
“I have experienced the drastic contrasts of rural and modern life, and have seen how knowledge and technology are unequally distributed,” Jiang said.
“We could easily help so many people in the underdeveloped world by sharing and communicating the knowledge we have in the modern world to these people. That really motivated me to write the speech and bring this message to the others. [I hope] to trigger Harvard graduates to rethink our mission as we start our next voyage.”