Princeton Weekly Bulletin March 8, 1999

Dale Fellow to study Tibetan medicine

By Steven Schultz


Fei Fei Li in front of the Potala Palace, the
Dalai Lama's winter residence in Lhasa


When Fei Fei Li '99 was growing up in the city of Chengdu, China, Western science and medicine seemed to meld easily with traditional Chinese culture.

She never gave it much thought, she says, when she received vaccinations one day and drank bitter herbal remedies the next.

Now, after becoming trained in Western science as a Princeton physics major, Li has begun to see how different the two worlds are and how each may offer insights into the other. And she will have a chance to spend a year researching the subject thanks to a Martin A. Dale '53 Fellowship.

Li is the third recipient of the annual fellowship, which provides students with $20,000 to pursue an independent project after graduating. Li will use the fellowship to travel to Tibet and study that region's ancient system of medicine. She titled her project "Exploring Tibetan Medicine, An Untapped Resource."

Neuroscience, Nanking

The award of the Dale Fellowship ties together a diverse and ambitious set of projects that Li has pursued during her four years here. She is majoring in physics, but has devoted most of her time to an area of research that combines biology, neuropsychology, computer science, electrical engineering and math. She will receive certificates in engineering physics and applied and computational math.

Li's particular research interest is neuroscience. Her junior and senior thesis projects have explored how the brain processes auditory and visual signals. She was inspired to do that work the summer after her sophomore year when she worked in the department of cellular and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She conducted research alongside leaders in the field and coauthored a paper that has been submitted to the journal Nature Neuroscience.

During that same period, Li undertook a very different project that is also reflected in her Dale Fellowship project. Growing up in China, she was struck by how memories of World War II and atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese imperial army were still a source of pain among Chinese and other Asian peoples. So, as a sophomore, she decided to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre by organizing an international conference.

The conference took place at Princeton in November 1997, bringing together for the first time a group of scholars from around the world with varied viewpoints on the massacre. Li and other conference organizers are now in the final stages of editing a book that contains essays by the conference participants. She told the Dale selection committee that she hoped the conference would help "heal these past scars and lay the groundwork for a more peaceful future."

The conference "really helped me have an understanding of humanity," she said. "As scientists, we are so involved in formulas and numbers, sometimes we lose sight of human issues."

Living Buddha in Lhasa

That interest in humanitarian issues and Asian culture came into play when Li turned her attention to studying traditional medicine. When she was little she talked about physics with her father, who was trained as an engineer, and spent time in the acupuncture clinic of her uncle. Last summer, she traveled to Tibet (which she can do freely on her Chinese passport) and met with professors and doctors at the Tibetan Medical Institute and with the Living Buddha Suo Lang Dun Zhu, a leading figure in Tibetan medicine. Receiving encouragement, she developed a plan for a yearlong study.

Li said she is confident that Tibetan medicine can be truly effective, even though it runs counter to many Western ideas about science and medicine. "While we have to be very questioning and rigorous, we also have to be open," she said.

The Dale selection committee clearly agreed that Li had proposed a valuable endeavor and that she was highly qualified to carry it out. "The project will undoubtedly contribute in very significant ways to her personal and intellectual development," said Forbes College Director of Studies John Hodgson, who coordinates the selection process. "It may well also contribute importantly to both scientific and cultural exchanges."