Summer 2014

Our China Connection

Harris BermanWhen a small contingent of people from Tufts—including Phil Hinds, chair of our Department of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology; Rebecca Scott, head of medical development; Jack Erban, ’81, clinical director of the Tufts Cancer Center; Olivia Cheng, a trustee at Tufts Medical Center, and my wife and I—ventured to Asia for three weeks in March, we were eager to explore possible relationships we might forge between their institutions and ours. We went with some natural advantages. 

First was our geography. We are probably the only medical school in the U.S. located in a Chinatown, and we have a long history of positive interaction with our immediate neighbors. Tufts Medical Center, in fact, functions as the community hospital for Chinatown.

A second advantage lay in the trip’s mission. We wanted to learn from our Asian hosts, and visited Singapore, China and Taiwan in that spirit. Our hosts were flattered by our interest.

Third, and more personally, although I am Jewish, I have a strong Chinese contingent in my family. Two of my four children are married to Chinese spouses. Another daughter has worked in China for seven years, and her husband, Evan Osnos, is a prominent China correspondent for The New Yorker and the author of a new much-acclaimed book, The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China. I have grandchildren in London who take both Chinese and Hebrew lessons. And I’ve traveled to all these countries multiple times over the years, starting in the mid-1960s.

An overriding goal of our trip was to learn about how to take care of Chinese and American patients more effectively in the 21st century. Many Chinese doctors and hospitals have done a great deal to integrate traditional Chinese medicine with Western medicine, and we wanted to learn from them about the effectiveness of using the two approaches in concert. Many places we visited are conducting extensive and sophisticated research along these lines.

A secondary goal of our journey was to investigate potential partnerships in breast cancer research that would draw on the enormous patient population in China. This initiative reflects our special strengths at the medical school in this area. On both fronts, we went to China as seekers and explorers, gathering initial information and making first connections that stand a good chance of growing into collaborations in the coming years.

Everywhere we went, we were greeted enthusiastically. Every few hours we ventured to a new place, and the cumulative effect was like drinking from a fire hose. I visited three institutions in Singapore, and the whole group visited eight in China and 14 more in Taiwan. Almost every institution we visited wanted to collaborate with us in some way.

Fudan University, in Shanghai, is a good example. One of the oldest and best modern universities in China, Fudan has 50,000 students. We paid a courtesy call there, and the people we met were eager to do business with us. It didn’t hurt our cause that a number of scientists recognized Phil Hinds as being on the editorial board of Cancer Research. They knew him as a name on a masthead; now they had the chance to meet him in person and think about partnering with him.

The details of any collaboration between Fudan and Tufts Medical School are tentative at this point, of course, but it’s easy to imagine how an affiliation might help advance our medical school’s own research interests. The Fudan University Cancer Center treats many more breast cancer patients each year than any hospital in Massachusetts. They are set up to track and assess large numbers of study results on a scale that surpasses our capability here.

Potential further advantages to our collaborations abound. Another prominent medical school in Taiwan wants to send its top M.D.s to Tufts to pursue Ph.D.s—a potential source of tuition revenue for our school.

Our Asia trip was an exciting way to open new channels between our two cultures. If my own family history is any indication, some great things will arise from the initiative. 

Harris A. Berman, M.D., is dean of Tufts University School of Medicine.

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