Cheng, Mei-Fang

Professor I
Areas of Interest: 
My Story: 
When I was growing up, I did not have a strong scientific influence in my life. Neither of my parents were scientists and I was born in Taiwan and raised during World War II. Needless to say, my education was not very steady. My father died young, so I was raised by my mother in a family of five children. She made sure education was the focus of the household. As the middle child, I felt blessed with more space away from parental scrutiny. I always loved to observe things. I could watch lines of ants for hours. After WWII, the island was still at war with mainland China and there were routine air strike drills at school. I remember not liking junior high school; in fact, I remember wishing that the island (Taiwan) would have an air strike so there would be no class. In high school I decided I wanted to be somebody who distinguishes herself in some area. I liked reading novels-- particularly novels with a strong female protagonist-- and knew I wanted to be involved in academics. There was never a conscious push towards science, but as an undergraduate at National Taiwan University (Tai-Da), the most prestigious university in Taiwan, I ended up majoring in Psychology. 

I graduated at the top of my college class and afterwards I had the option of either getting married or studying abroad, since there was no graduate school in Taiwan at that time. My fellow students were traveling to the United States or Japan. I felt the U.S. offered more options. A Tai-Da professor who had graduated from the University of Michigan recommended the University of Oregon, so I started there. I did not feel grounded in Oregon, however. I yearned for the East Coast, as I thought I would find a warmer reception than I had in Oregon. I assumed that people on the East Coast would be more knowledgeable and appreciative of Chinese culture. A college friend had spoken highly of his friendship with an American couple; the husband was a Nobel Laureate in science and the wife was a Bryn Mawr alumna. I decided to enroll in Bryn Mawr College for a doctoral degree. 

Even though my college in Taiwan was co-ed, in those days we did not even shake hand

Cheng, Mei-Fang

s with male classmates, so I thought I would feel more comfortable at Bryn Mawr, a women's college. I was in for a cultural shock nevertheless. Bryn Mawr provided a sheltered environment that allowed me to grow and to absorb the excitement of the 60's movement, immersed in a liberal view of geopolitics and the world at large. My rigid upbringing slowly gave way to a more intellectual outlook and away from simplistic moral judgments. My conservative view of social conduct evolved to become more in tune with the culture. 

At that time, I worked on human studies testing visual perceptions under the somewhat reclusive and reserved Professor Donald Davidon. I often buried myself in Bryn Mawr's library, a beautiful Gothic structure where I found refuge in a serene environment, especially during the holidays when the campus was utterly deserted. I also enjoyed spending time on the campus's sprawling landscape of green meadows and lakes. Strolling through the fallen leaves on campus, however, also gave me pangs of homesickness. In those days, I could not contact my family by telephone, let alone email or internet. The only communication was by post. It took two months to send or receive a letter.

While working on my PhD, I met and married a fellow Taiwanese who was studying for a PhD in physics at the University of Pennsylvania. I attained my PhD a year ahead of him and started as a post doc at the University of Pennsylvania under Philip Teitelbaum. This lab was using rats to study the role of the hypothalamus in mediating feeding and drinking behaviors. When I arrived, I began a line of research on developmental behaviors. I found an interesting parallel between the sequence of the recovery of these behaviors after hypothalamic lesion and the ontogeny of these behaviors in developing rats. There I discovered I was very good at surgery and that my interests were more physiologically based. It was during this period that I realized that I could fit in with the crowd, although I was still painfully shy, and had difficulty conjuring up enough courage to even ask a question in a class. I no longer felt different, as an Asian or even as a petite woman who always had to walk fast to keep up with my long-legged male colleagues. 

Around 1970 when my husband accepted an assistant professorship from Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, I was offered an opportunity to work in George Miller's laboratory at Rockefeller University, studying learning and memory. Instead, I chose to join Rutgers University in Newark as a research associate of Daniel Lehrman who was doing interesting work with birds. Lehrman was studying natural animal behaviors in a simulated natural setting and asking questions which he tested in the context of evolutionary biology. This approach was a major departure from mainstream psychology which relied upon using animals as tools to address human questions, without regard for natural animal behaviors (which, alas, continues to this day). The foundations of my research interests took root in this philosophical and intellectual framework.

One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome during the early years of my career was my shyness which often manifested in my fear of asking questions. I was quiet and overly self-conscious of using proper grammatical English. If I spoke in class and the Professor did not understand me, I would be mortified. I was also afraid of making a mistake or being wrong, a self-imposed constraint, and needless to say a major hindrance for career advancement. It was difficult for me to say "no" to a friend or disagree with my professors. These fears may have been vestiges of the rigid Chinese education system I was exposed to in my youth. One downside of this "agreeableness" is that I often suffered from intense feelings of helplessness and sometimes humiliation by colleagues. I can still vividly remember a colleague disparaging me during a meeting attended by both faculty and students. I felt I did not receive the respect I was due from a colleague, but more importantly, I was unable to stand up for my own work in an effective, professional manner. Uncontrollable tears betrayed what I really felt in front of a crowd, and I wished I could have just disappeared into thin air. 

In response to these adverse situations, I told myself that even though there may have been elements of race or gender at play, I carried some responsibility for how I was treated. I learned to be assertive and to aggressively pursue my research. I was not to be deterred or shamed by challenges from important figures in the field. Changes are slow and incremental, though. Some scars last for years, and there are people who hold on to their perceptions. I learned to acknowledge others' opinions and move on. Scarlett O'Hara's "Tomorrow is another day" was my favorite motto. I did not have anyone specific mentoring me, but I was acutely aware of the status my close colleagues enjoyed and strived to do as well as them, if not better. There was no shortage of helpful friends throughout my career. At a time of very few female mentors, reaching out to colleagues beyond Rutgers was instrumental to gain insights into both research techniques and advancement in academia. Sometimes, male colleagues were more helpful than female colleagues who seemed to feel that others should struggle as they had.

Fortunately, many colleagues and institutions have responded positively to my performance. Over the years, I have earned a Research Development Career Award, Johnson and Johnson Discovery Award, Hoechst Celanese Innovative Research Award, Rutgers Board of Trustee Award for Excellence in Research, and a long series of individual research grants from NIH across the years. I also became the Director of the Institute of Animal Behavior that Daniel Lehrman founded.

In reflection, I take some pride in what I have accomplished under considerable obstacles and stress from balancing the demands of work and family with three children. I can see how self-consciousness and fear of inferiority once hindered me, and how self-confidence and freedom from self-imposed psychological limitations are essential to a productive scientific career. Today, there are many opportunities for women, yet the statistics still register a discrepancy in pay and in leadership positions between genders. My advice is to persist in striving for your dreams, regardless of your gender.

Transcribed from an interview with Christina Leshko, with edits by Lauren Miller
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