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Top senior wants ‘to be happy and help others be happy’
Infectious-disease detective and champion of Chinese orphans overcame shyness to achieve her goals

| 08 May 2008

If there were an award for the world’s most timid child, Leslie Chung-Lei Sheu would have won it as a youngster for her deep discomfort with the unknown. Today, after myriad challenges, the plucky, gregarious senior is the winner of a much more fitting prize.

Sheu’s dogged scientific curiosity, academic success, and empathy for the downtrodden have earned her the University Medal, the campus’s top honor for a graduating senior. The 22-year-old Sheu, who will receive the medalist’s $2,500 scholarship, will address thousands of her peers at Commencement Convocation next Tuesday, May 13, at the Greek Theatre.


Leslie Sheu (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

A molecular-and-cell-biology major with a 3.99 grade-point average, Sheu is being recognized for her research into the immune response to drug-resistant tuberculosis, her outreach to Asians and Pacific Islanders with hepatitis B, and her mentoring and fundraising work on behalf of orphans and adoptees from China. Next fall, the aspiring physician will begin medical school at UC San Francisco (UCSF).

Despite earning bragging rights, the sprightly, freckle-faced senior says she is shocked to be winning the University Medal and unsure of what to say in her speech next week: “I don’t want to talk too much about myself. I don’t want it to be boring.”

Boring is definitely not the word to describe Sheu’s resumé, which is just one page long, yet packed with intriguing and tangible achievements. “In my 30 years at Berkeley, I have not yet met another undergraduate who showed such a high level of commitment to both her community and to her academics,” said Lewis Feldman, professor of plant biology, in his letter recommending Sheu for the University Medal.

The daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Sheu was born in Albany, Calif., in 1985. Her father, Phillip Sheu, graduated from Berkeley a year later with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer sciences and eventually became a tenured professor at UC Irvine.

Leslie Sheu recalls being a painfully shy toddler: “I was the most scared person ever. If I saw a dog, I would run away and hold onto my mom. In preschool, I would be afraid to interact with other kids, and the teachers would carry me around the whole day,” she says.

When the family moved to Irvine in 1993, 8-year-old Sheu began to emerge from her shell as she played with neighborhood kids and became more athletic and outgoing.

But when her grandfather died three years later, Sheu anxiously probed everyone she could about the meaning of life, searching for a scientific answer until finally accepting her Buddhist mother’s advice to “be happy and help others be happy.”

Another satisfied Cal Day visitor

It was at University High School in Irvine that Sheu developed a fascination with biology as a key to solving medical mysteries such as cancer. She was unsure what she wanted to be when she grew up, but Berkeley, her father’s alma mater, seemed like the right place to help her explore the possibilities.

“I really enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere when I came to visit on Cal Day. The people seemed really down to earth and fun to be with,” she says.

When she arrived on campus in fall 2004, Sheu flirted with the idea of majoring in education, taking teaching jobs at a preschool and at the Lawrence Hall of Science. But she also took classes in biology and organic chemistry and found she had a natural aptitude for the sciences.

“I loved how electrons moved. Everything made sense to me,” she says.
Sheu veered toward medicine in her sophomore year when her mother, Annie, became ill. After failing to get relief from Western medicine, the elder Sheu recovered after receiving daily acupuncture, massages, and Chinese herbs.

Leslie Sheu began to consider the potential benefits of traditional Chinese medicine, enrolling in a public-health study-abroad program through Northwestern University that took her to Tsinghua University in Beijing for the summer of 2006.

With her fluency in Mandarin, Sheu quickly gained entrée into Chinese culture. She also picked up on a medical disparity between the wealthy and the poor: Those with money opted for Western medical treatment, while low-income people relied on traditional Chinese medicine, largely because it was all they could afford.

Even more eye-opening was her introduction to the ramifications of China’s one-child policy, which sends millions of girls and boys with birth defects to orphanages because of parental abandonment. Through a fellow student in the program, Sheu visited a state orphanage and saw heartbreaking cases of neglect and detachment disorder. That spurred her to raise awareness of the plight of disabled orphans in China who are not being adopted. Since then she has launched a campus chapter of China Care, which provides medical care for the frailest orphans in China, and raised more than $1,000 to help with two orphans’ surgeries. She also co-taught a student-led course at Berkeley to raise awareness about Chinese adoption and — through the Northern California chapter of Families With Children From China, an international organization — began a teen-mentorship program for Chinese adoptees.

After her return from China in fall 2006, Sheu began a time-intensive research project in chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi’s laboratory. She wanted to investigate the body’s immune response to tuberculosis, an airborne lung disease that is making a comeback in low-income immigrant communities and among the homeless.

TB cells have found a way to avoid being destroyed by macrophages, which are scavenger cells that devour pathogens. Using quantitative mass spectrometry, which can identify proteins, Sheu is trying to find out why two intracellular vesicles, phagosomes and lysosomes, are not fusing and thus allow TB to live inside a protected cell and fester.

Heading toward UCSF

But while Sheu continues to be captivated by the molecular world of infectious diseases, she has learned that research, which rarely if ever yields fast results, is probably not for her. That’s why she jumped at the opportunity in her junior year to work with UCSF students at the San Francisco Hepatitis B Collaborative, an effort to stem the spread of hepatitis B, another infectious disease common in new-immigrant and low-income communities that is transmitted through sexual contact or intravenously.

That experience led her to apply to UCSF School of Medicine: “I really enjoy the intellectual side of research, but ultimately decided that a career in medicine suits me better so I can start helping others be happy more directly,” she says.

“As I have learned at Cal,” she adds, “opportunities may come and change the direction of my life, so I think I’m taking a very open approach now, which can be kind of scary, but also very exciting.”

And that heartens her mother, who once worried what would become of her shy little girl.

“If there was an award titled ‘The World’s Most Timid Baby/Toddler/Preschooler,’ I truly believed you couldn’t give it to anyone but Leslie,” says Annie Sheu. “But Leslie has grown up, and I am no longer worried about her future, because even though the shyness might still be hidden within her, she sure has found a way to conquer it.”