By Tracie White
Photography by Duncan Stewart
The youngest scientist on campus shows up prepared.
He has a list of questions for one of the oldest scientists at Stanford’s medical school.
No way is he letting this chance slip by.
As a 16-year-old graduate student at Stanford, Andrew Hsu is not one to miss an opportunity.
“Who was your hero?” asks Hsu, reading from the list of questions he’s pulled from his pants pocket. The teenager, who started his PhD program in neuroscience at Stanford last fall, sits across from Dale Kaiser, PhD, 80, who has taught almost half a century at Stanford and still works in the lab.
“Linus Pauling,” Kaiser answers fairly easily.
It’s an orchestrated meeting of the old and the young. The question of the day:
What does age mean to a scientist?
As a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology in the heyday of the genetics revolution, Kaiser was taught by Nobel Prize winners like biochemist Pauling and Max Delbruck of DNA fame. An exciting time, he remembers fondly. Like it is for biochemistry today, he says.
Hsu soaks it up. His dreams of someday unlocking at least a few of the mysteries of the universe are what have landed him here. He wants to explore the brain, cure illnesses, change lives.
The two scientists work just two buildings apart: Hsu in the neuroscience lab of professor Carla Shatz, PhD, in the Clark Center, investigating plasticity in the brain of a mutant mouse; Kaiser in the Beckman Center, where his lab has been since the building went up back in 1989. They’re meeting in Kaiser’s small office — really just an addendum to the test-tube-filled lab next door where he’s worked and played for so many years of his life — a shrine dedicated to unveiling the secrets of myxobacteria.
Kaiser’s always happy to meet yet another budding scientist. He’s taught hundreds, maybe thousands of bright, young students over the years. Never one quite as young as Hsu, though.
“My age is not an issue at all,” says Hsu, with striking quiet self-assurance, striking in one so young. “Pretty much I just can’t go to bars with the other students.”
The gap between the young PhD student’s age and his mental abilities appeared early on. At 2, he was building Lego robots as tall as he was, and by 5 he was solving algebra problems. Homeschooling quickly became a necessity, according to his parents. His mother says they just gave him lots of thick textbooks and let him teach himself. Last spring, he graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle with three degrees — in neurobiology, biochemistry and chemistry.
“I was a competitive swimmer up until I was 12 years old, when I quit,” Hsu says. “I was in the middle of college and got too busy.”
Hsu lives in Mountain View, Calif., with his parents and two younger brothers. They moved there from Washington after Andrew was accepted into Stanford’s PhD program. He plays tennis in his spare time and hopes to pass his driving test sometime soon.
As a child prodigy, Hsu has had his share of publicity over the years, appearing on ABC, CBS, in Time for Kids magazine and National Geographic Kids magazine. In November, NBC’s Today Show touted both his natural brilliance and his humanitarianism. In 2002, when he was 11, Hsu and his younger brother Patrick created the Foundation for the World Children Organization, its mission to provide education to the world’s underprivileged children. The foundation has delivered books and water filters to developing nations.
Always, he’s been in a rush to achieve, says his mother, Joyce Hsu, until this summer, that is.
“He’s realized the need to slow down. To take some time to think.”
And, at Stanford, he’s found his focus, she says. He’s in the right environment, surrounded by other hard-working, talented students with a passion for science.
“That’s why we moved here,” Joyce Hsu says. “It’s the right place for him, and his brothers.”
Andrew Hsu started out on a path to medical school, but after his grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he became more focused on research.
“I thought the brain would be a really good model to study,” says Hsu. “I always wanted to be a doctor, but I’m even more interested in finding cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s, so I decided to go into neuroscience research instead.”
They’re alike, these two scientists, both intelligent, thoughtful, dressed in khaki pants, wearing glasses and brown lace-up shoes. And they’re different too. Hsu’s a fast talker, and has a full head of hair. Kaiser was born in 1927, the year before penicillin was discovered. His white hair is thinning a bit, and he refuses to carry a cell phone. Hsu answers cell calls while riding his bike to school.
“How do you choose a thesis?” Hsu continues, choosing another question from his list. Kaiser pauses, then looks up at the bookshelf above his desk trying to find a copy of his old thesis. It’d be a bit dusty by now, jammed in between volumes of cellular biology texts he’s collected over the years. His thesis topic was the genetics of bacteria. “Find something you’ll enjoy doing for two years,” Kaiser says. “It doesn’t have to be your life’s work.” That may come later.
Kaiser didn’t initially set out to make his life’s work the study of slime bacteria, or more scientifically put, the study of myxobacteria. But that’s what it became. “Myxo is a Greek word; in modern Greek, it’s a slang word for snot, which is slime, mucus,” he says, as if this explains it all. Colorful posters of myxobacteria decorate his lab walls. A joke posted to his lab door states: “Everything I need to know I learned from my myxobacteria.”
Professor emeritus of biochemistry and of developmental biology, Kaiser came to Stanford in 1959. His research has focused on chemical signaling between cells in multicellular organisms, such as myxobacteria. Among the many honors he has received was a 1980 Lasker Award for studies that led to the development of recombinant DNA — a method of inserting one piece of DNA into another, widely used in molecular biology today.
It’s a simple burning desire to figure out “how things work” that has kept him happily working with microscopic particles in a lab, day after day, for nearly half a century. He retired three years ago, but don’t tell that to his wife.
“My wife says I’m working more now,” he says with a laugh.
“I’ll keep working until I come into class and don’t make sense anymore,” says Kaiser with a grin. He’s teaching developmental biology next quarter. Like Hsu, age doesn’t limit him much. Maybe his memory isn’t quite as sharp as a teenager’s, but when it comes to experience, he’s tough to beat.
“Intuition is very important in science,” Kaiser says. Hsu nods. “Biological science is so complicated. It’s filled with so many things that we don’t understand, like the brain. When you get to the point of making a theory of how something like neurocircuits work, intuition is key.”
The more experience you have, the more you can trust your intuition, he says. He pauses to consider another question from Hsu: “How do you become a good scientist?”
Kaiser’s answer is simple. Follow your passion.
“It’s your own nature telling you what you like to think about,” Kaiser says. “It’s your source of creativity. If you have fun doing it, and have some success in doing it, ordinarily you keep doing it until you run out of time.”