New chancellor took her own path

URBANA — Phyllis Wise's father was a physician and her mother a nurse; both were professors at Ivy League universities.

No pressure here.

The parents didn't have to tell their daughter, the future chancellor, that they wanted her to earn an M.D. after her name.

Instead, Wise got a doctorate in physiology, making her a bit of a rebel in the high-achieving immigrant Chinese family, says her cousin Kathy Slazak — who does have an M.D. after her name. She is a radiologist in Princeton, N.J.

"Phyllis made the absolutely right decision to buck her parents," Slazak said.

In a recent interview, the new chancellor deflected a question about her upbringing and the recent best-seller "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," about the pressure to excel in some Chinese families.

Instead of talking about her own childhood, she talked about making her son, Andrew, practice music at 6 a.m. He grew up to be an attorney; his sister Erica is a cellist in Spain who has won the Nakamichi Cello Competition.

Wise says she always knew she wanted to be a scientist. "It was just there," she said; there was no "light bulb" moment.

Besides serving as interim president of the University of Washington, Wise headed a lab that made ground-breaking efforts in the study of hormones and their protective functions for the brain and other organs.

Slazak recalls when someone asked her cousin what she did. "I'm a teacher," Wise said — not mentioning that she was also a dean at the University of California at Davis.

Another cousin, Debbie Chinn, who is a consultant to the Philadelphia Orchestra, calls Wise "the dean" of their extended family, just as her sister calls Wise "the matriarch."

"I've always wanted to be her," Chinn said.

"She is my role model. She handles every challenge. She never boasts about her success. In our culture, we were taught not to do that."

The new chancellor is indeed reticent about her life, with a quiet confidence Slazak says may have been polished in her year at a finishing school in Switzerland.

Herb Simon, who chaired the University of Washington Board of Regents in her tenure, said Wise "quarterbacked the team without taking any of the credit."

"No. 1, she's very self-effacing; she doesn't take the credit she deserves. She delegates because she is self-confident; she's deliberative in her goals; she always follows a moral and ethical pathway," Simon said.

Wise's career had a steadily uphill trajectory.

She graduated from Swarthmore in biology in 1967 and earned a Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Michigan in 1972. Following a Ford Foundation post-doctoral fellowship, Wise taught for 16 years in the University of Maryland's medical school.

In 2008, Swarthmore awarded her an honorary doctorate.In her commencement address there, Wise told graduates about some of her own qualities:

"My humble words of advice for you: take note of the people you encounter who inspire you, who energize you, who live the way you aspire to. Watch how they work, learn from them. Never stop observing."

She also discussed how her parents nearly left the United States. Her father had a medical degree from a Peking university with ties to the Rockefeller family, and he came to America on a Rockefeller Foundation grant to earn a doctorate at Northwestern.

Of her mother, she said, "she taught me manners, etiquette, courtesy, compassion, humility. She taught me to strive for the highest goals, but, most importantly, she taught me generosity. She did this through her life story."

That life story includes, Wise told the graduates: "She and my father were scheduled to return to China on Dec. 12, 1941. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they remained in the U.S. and created a new life together in this country."

Slazak said that life included assimilating, and "becoming the best Americans we could be."

Wise told The News-Gazette her parents had expectations of her, and she left it at that.

Everyone in her family studied music, she said.

"I sawed away at the violin for four years, and then four years at the piano," Wise said.

Slazak said her cousin is far too modest about her practiced piano skills.

There was no grading on the curve in the family she grew up in, her cousins say.

"They didn't have to tell you to do something. It was ... the look," Slazak said.

"We have a lot of over-achievers in our family, due in large part to our parents and the value they put on education," said Chinn, who added that "there was also a lot of laughter and giggling" in the family.

Wise said her father took her to his neurology lab every Saturday, where she learned about science.

"How do you NOT do biology after that?" Wise asked.

S.C. (Shih-Chun) Wang, her father, wasn't just a professor at Columbia University's medical school, he was quite a famous one.

Dr. Wang was an expert on the brain's stabilizing functions who was hired by NASA to study the problem (for astronauts) of nausea in the battle between acceleration and gravitation.

He performed the early experiments with cats, and wrote a scientific paper about that.

His research helped lead to the infamous "Vomit Comet" of the 1960s space program and improvements in combatting motion sickness.

The New York Times, in its 1993 obituary about him, noted that he taught thousands — a major science award is named for him — and that other research led to helping millions with high blood pressure.

"His research led to a fundamental understanding of motion sickness and the development of drugs to prevent vomiting and other adverse reactions. It also opened windows on other kinds of deviations from normal functions and led to effective counter measures, like drug therapy for hypertension," the Times reported.

Wise's mother, Mamie Wang, a Cornell University professor, became the matriarch of a close and driven family, now sprinkled all over the world, Slazak said. Wise noted that her mother also pioneered in the nurse practitioner program.

Wise said that, despite coming from a family where women were educated and leaders, she was at first the only woman in the graduate zoology program at Michigan.

"I was the only woman for the first 10 years" in her programs, she told The News-Gazette.

One potential mentor turned her down for his lab because she had a child at the time.

Later, "as a department head, I was head of a search committee. I hired a woman," she said, with a smile.

A woman, the late endocrinologist Anita Payne, encouraged Wise to apply for a post-doctoral position.

Being a woman never hurt her in her rise in the administrative ranks, Wise continued.

"I was really very fortunate. If anything, I think I was given opportunities before I was ready," she said.

As dean of biological sciences at UC-Davis, she worked with 140 faculty.

In her next position, at the University of Washington, she came to be in charge of hundreds of professors at three campuses with a $4 billion budget.

(The University of Illinois system's operating budget is almost 25 percent bigger than that.)

But she said she never wanted to be the permanent president of the University of Washington.

"I had already taken myself out of the running (at Washington) when I interviewed for Illinois," she said.

Wise continued her research even while a top administrator in Seattle.

In a rare moment where a touch of pride sneaks out, she said she's proud that her women's health lab received two grants notable for much longer terms than the norm.

She received two MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) awards from the National Institutes of Health, from 1986 to 1996 and again from 2001 to 2010.

"The longer grants allow you to think differently, over a longer term, and you can be really, really bold," she said.

At 66, she is giving up her lab duties in favor of long hours with faculty, students and donors.

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Alexander wrote on October 16, 2011 at 6:10 pm

I think Prof. Wise is a great hire for UIUC and what I have to say is no criticism of her.

However, I think the title of the article (which I presume she did not choose) is unfair. To say that a child of two professors in the bio/medical sciences went on to become a professor in the bio/medical sciences "took her own path" is nonsensical. A child of factory workers who went on to become a professor of bio/medical sciences took his/her own path. How about "New chancellor continues family tradition".