November 14, 2013

Cornell Professor Gets Posthumous Recognition for Work

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One Cornell professor is getting recognition five years after his death for his work in molecular biology, particularly in genetics.

On Oct. 24, Prof. Ray Wu, molecular biology and genetics, was presented with the 2013 Ezra Technology Innovator Award. Wu died in 2008 at the age of 79.

“We use our biennial Ezra Technology Innovator Award to recognize a Cornell faculty inventor whose inventions have made significant impact,” said Alan Paau, vice provost for technology transfer and economic development, at Wu’s award ceremony.

Wu was born in Beijing, China and educated in the United States, earning his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1966.

Paau said Wu recieved the award because Wu’s work is still relevant years after his death.

“If we don’t recognize the impact of his many inventions now, as years go by, an opportunity may not present itself again,” Pauu said at the award ceremony.

Wu led the way for many inventions at Cornell, such as his invention of synthetic stick ends — or adaptors — that allowed cloning of genes across DNA fragments. This invention “became a standard cloning approach of genes,” Paau said.

Prof. Elizabeth Earle, plant breeding and genetics and a former associate of Wu’s, said that Wu was an important player in creating bonds between the U.S. and Chinese scientific communities.

“Ray was a generous and modest man who fostered important links between Cornell and China,” Earle said in an email.

Wu was a scientific advisor to the governments of both China and Taiwan and was influential on U.S.-Chinese cooperation in the field of molecular biology and genetics, according to a memorial website for Wu. He was also key in helping establish the National Institute of Biological Sciences, a research laboratory in Beijing, according to the website.

Wu also founded the China-United States Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Examination and Application program. The program brought more than 400 of the top Chinese students to the United States from 1982 to 1989 for graduate training and produced more than 100 faculty members in major universities or key members in industry, according to Paau.

Wu’s generosity to Cornell University and the scientific community is still felt today, Paau said.

Paau also said that Wu “not only reinvested his inventor share of money back into his own research program at Cornell” but also donated his own money. Wu’s trust continues to contribute his money into two programs: Cornell’s graduate program in molecular biology and the genetics program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Throughout his career, Wu published 394 research papers, more than 100 of them related to gene cloning and sequencing. He also contributed chapters to 11 books, according to Paau.

“His contributions to the modern day molecular biology, especially with practical applications to address pressing agricultural challenges for food production and supply, cannot be overstated,” Paau said.