Former UI colleagues show support for Fu

 

Listen to this article

The University of Illinois scientist walked into Paul Magelli's business consulting office and handed him a piece of paper with an algebraic equation.

As he tells it, Magelli looked at the equation and said, "I know math, but I don't know this level math. What does it do?"

The scientist, computer expert Ping Fu, told him, "It makes things perfect."

The 3-D modeling technology Fu developed in the 1990s with her husband, renown mathematician and computer scientist Herbert Edelsbrunner, grew into a business called Geomagic that would eventually make Ping Fu an entrepreneurial rock star.

Her fame has also brought her heartache, as critics have attacked her accounts of persecution in China as a child in her memoir, "Bend Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds."

Those who knew her at the UI say they have no doubts about Fu's story.

"I believe her. I believed her then. I believe she was genuine. In every other way I dealt with Ping, she had the highest integrity, both as a student, as a colleague, as a researcher and as a businesswoman," said art and design Professor Donna Cox, director of the Advanced Scientific Visualization Laboratory at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, where Fu worked.

After moving to the United States from China, Fu earned a master's degree in computer science at the UI in 1990. She was hired as a visiting research programmer in April 1991 and promoted to technical program manager in August 1995 before leaving NCSA in 1999.

Fu worked in a software development group at NCSA that produced the Mosaic software project, which led to Netscape and Internet Explorer. Among her collaborators was Netscape founder Mark Andreessen.

In 1996, she and her husband co-founded Geomagic — originally known as Raindrop Geomagic — "because the raindrop is the most prefect of all shapes," she told Magelli. The company has become a leader in digital shape sampling and processing, which involves scanning objects with optical beams and making 3-D digital replications of them for manufacturing and testing purposes.

Cox worked with Fu through their visualization work at NCSA. One of their projects was "Cosmic Voyage," an Imax film, using NCSA's virtual reality CAVE. Fu also took a computer animation course from Cox.

"She came here because of the excitement of NCSA," Cox said.

Ping shared many of the same stories outlined in her book about repression in China with her colleagues back in the 1990s, Cox said. She finds the attacks on Fu "ridiculous."

"There was no reason for her to make all of this up. They are trying to just ruin her reputation," she said. "Who knows why. It could be political, given the situation in China.

"To me, it just characterizes so many oppressed and victimized women who are not believed. They're disregarded. People try to undermine them."

"I have only positive things to say about Ping. She was so focused and settled on how to solve all kinds of problems, whether they were technical or whether they were management," Cox said. "She seemed fair, honest, with the highest integrity."

Magelli, who met Fu through a business consulting program at the UI College of Business, has become good friends with her and invited her back to campus several times. She recently delivered the annual Cozad Lecture at the College of Business, speaking about the potential for 3-D printing to reinvigorate American manufacturing.

He describes her as "brilliant" and a "visionary," who resurrected her life after coming to the United States. Like Cox, Magelli said he has "no doubt" that she has told the truth.

"Absolutely. Unquestionably," he said.

He said UI students from China have told him that the Cultural Revolution is a "forbidden topic" in their families. Nor do they learn about it in school or read about it in books.

"They learn about it when they come to America," he said. "Their parents and grandparents don't want to relive it. They don't want to revisit it. They want it to be forgotten history."

During his time at the Kauffman Foundation, Magelli was introduced to the editor of Inc. magazine, who was looking for candidates for Entrepreneur of the Year. Magelli suggested Fu, who had by then moved her company to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. She received that award in 2005, and others followed.

Of late, they've discussed the criticism of her biography. She described it as a "nightmare."

"She said, 'The last thing I want to be is a liar,'" Magelli said.

"She's a celebrity in the technology field these days," he said. "It's been very hard to have some of that diminished by some of these charges."

The last time Cox saw Fu was when Fu gave the keynote address for the College of Engineering commencement last May. They had dinner together, and Fu talked about the controversy and how it's affected her life.

"This has taken a bit of a toll on her — not being believed," she said. "I simply believe her and have no reason not to believe her."

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).