‘Black Sheep’ Turned Accomplished Scholar
AS A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT in China, Du Cheng (‘11, Biology) excelled at being curious and mischievous.
He rewired his school’s elevator. Interested in tanning, he skinned his friend’s dead pet in the school bathroom. He talked in class when he wasn’t supposed to. He nearly got kicked out of high school. Then, he didn’t pass the country’s national college entrance exam, which is known for its rigor and which determines a student’s academic future.
“Sometimes in life, you don’t fit into a mold that’s created for you. Sometimes, you just have to go with what you’re good at. I was a black sheep trying to paint myself white,” says Cheng.
Turns out, Cheng was good at science.
He retook the national exam and after a year in college, he came to Humboldt State in 2008 as an exchange student. Under Biological Sciences Professors Jianmin Zhong and Amy Sprowles, he did everything from extracting DNA from ticks to working with tissue culture technology.
“I could address practical problems and learn skills that were deeply rooted in molecular biology so that later, I could work on stem cells,” says Cheng. “It was amazing. Not many schools could give experiences like these to undergrads.”
He’s come a long way since his high school days. Cheng, 28, is now a medical student and Ph.D. candidate in the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller U/Sloan Kettering Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. program. Earlier this year, he was one of only 30 recipients of the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, the nation’s premier graduate school fellowship for immigrants and children of immigrants. The award comes with up to $90,000 to help with educational expenses.
Cheng has also discovered he has a knack for inventions. He created a microscope adapter that lets users take high-quality photos with an iPhone—a tool he made at HSU. He also created a 3D-printed model for neurosurgery planning, and a cell phone retinal imaging device. These creations have in some way helped make improvements for doctors, scientists, students, and patients in the community.
Ultimately, Cheng hopes to use his research and inventions to help others, and he wants to apply what he’s learned in molecular and stem cell biology to advance the field of neurosurgery.
“When I see people suffering or struggling, I feel compassion and want to help them live better lives and do the things they want to do.”