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Vol. LVII, No. 11
June 3, 2005

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NINDS's Liu Returns to China to Train Students

International Activities, recently traveled back to her native China to help teach students about neuroscience career development and opportunities for international research collaboration.

Her trip was sponsored by the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) as part of its Visiting Lecture Team Program (VLTP), which provides basic neuroscience training to students in economically developing countries and features intense 10-day lecture courses on various neuroscience topics.

  Drs. John Nicholls and Yuan Liu (r) sign copies of From Neuron to Brain during the Visiting Lecture Team Program course in China.
"The purpose of the program is to plant seeds in these countries to help develop the next generation of neuroscientists," said Liu, who not only lectured the students but also donated 100 copies of a textbook to them.

The textbook, a Chinese translation of From Neuron to Brain, by renowned neuroscientist Dr. John Nicholls, is one of the best textbooks for neuroscience, according to Liu. Nicholls, who served as director of the VLTP group from 1994 to 2002, also traveled to China with Liu and other VLTP members. "If you can have a version in your language along with the original text, it's much easier to absorb and understand," said Liu.

She speaks from experience as she was once a student from the economically developing China 20 years ago when she enrolled in a neurobiology course taught by Nicholls. Although she was already interested in science, neurobiology in particular, she remembers that the course had a profound effect on her.

"I feel like my participation now is in some sense a repayment because I was the beneficiary of a similar program," said Liu, who is considered one of the program's role models. "Although I am an American citizen, in my heart I still love my home country. I hope Chinese science can blossom and grow."

Born in Tianjin, China, to intellectual parents, Liu grew up with a love of books and knowledge and an appreciation of education. Her mother was a language scholar who maintained shelves of foreign language books, and her father studied mathematics and engineering in the United States with the goal of bringing Western science and technology back to China. His plans were derailed, however, as he was later accused of being a "counter-revolutionary" and was put in jail when Liu was only 3 years old.

At a young age, Liu's mother encouraged her to read, and eventually to establish a children's library to share her books with friends. "She even taught me how to catalog the books according to subject," said Liu.

Liu's own formal education was abruptly halted in October 1966, after she completed 5th grade, when the whole country of China fell into turmoil due to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

According to Liu, the revolution, which was begun by Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, was actually an anti-revolutionary movement against all previous human cultures — including traditional Chinese and Western cultures. "For 10 years, there were no schools at all. All the schools were closed and there was no intellectual stimulation," said Liu.

Her home was invaded and all of the family's books were thrown onto the front lawn and burned by the Red Guard, a group of students who violently carried out the revolution. "They burned every book, every volume. They took away literally everything — all of our furniture and even our house," she said. "Even today the smell of burning paper brings back terrible memories."

Liu and her mother were forced to live in a basement and Liu was later required to work in a factory. Still her desire to read and study continued. She borrowed things to read including an old English textbook that she was only allowed to keep for a few days. Knowing this, her mother borrowed a typewriter as well and hand-typed the textbook so Liu could continue to study. This, of course, got her mother into a great deal of trouble.

In 1976, after the revolution ended, Liu became a college student at age 24 upon receiving one of the highest marks on a nationwide college exam. She then enrolled in Peking University and was placed in the department of biology. "I was very lucky and motivated," she said. "I had a good mother who encouraged me to study."

Liu went on to earn her bachelor's and master's degrees in neurophysiology at Peking University. It was during this time that she took Nicholls' neurobiology course and was later invited to join his laboratory in Switzerland. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Biozentrum, Universitšt Basel in Switzerland while working in Nicholls' laboratory.

She later accepted a postdoctoral position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and from there she came to NIH as an intramural scientist for NICHD. Soon after, she moved to an NINDS laboratory, studying synaptic transmission and plasticity.

In 1995, she became a program director for the Basic Neuroscience Program at NIAAA. She was recruited back to NINDS in 1999 as a program director in the channels, synapses and circuits cluster, and became chief of the newly established Office of International Activities in 2004.

Liu strongly believes in IBRO's mission to promote neuroscience and encourage communication and collaborations among brain researchers worldwide.

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