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From China to B.C.: Dr. Lewei Zhang’s Path to Oral Cancer Research

August 13, 2014

Hello, my name is Dr. Lewei Zhang – I am Chief Pathologist with the BC Oral Cancer Prevention Program at the BC Cancer Agency. I am pleased to be blogging this month, along with my colleagues.

I grew up in communist China– it was a very different China from what exists today. My father was a mathematics professor and my mother was an economics professor, though in the communist culture, academics were considered to be lower on the social hierarchy than workers, peasants or soldiers and called “smelly number 9”.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966 -1976), all young people graduated from high school were sent to the countryside (rural China) to be laborers under the slogan “to be re-educated by peasants” but the reality was that the Cultural Revolution had bankrupted the economy and there were no jobs in the city. So I went to countryside following high school graduation and worked as a laborer. However, I was lucky and was chosen to become a “barefoot doctor” because there was a shortage of doctors in the region. I had three months of “medical school” training which involved training in Western medicine and Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture. I practiced injection and acupuncture on myself.

I climbed mountain trails (not barefoot but with my shoes on) to visit various villages distributing pain killers, performing acupunctures, suturing cuts and giving antibiotic injections. Oh yes, I sung my lungs out along the mountain trail! One of my “patients”, a young kid, had frequent severe eczema. I gave her acupuncture during one of her episodes. She was very afraid of needle and passed out on me.  I felt horrible at the time but many months later her mother told me that the kid never had eczema again! It was very rewarding and a great pleasure to be a doctor! I was a barefoot doctor for two and half years before I went to university.


Following a decade-long period of no university in China during the Cultural Revolution, university began running again in 1977. All young people who had graduated from high school during those ten years were allowed to enter a competitive university entrance examination including both literature and science (math, physics and chemistry) and select universities and majors they would like to enter into.

The natural choice for me should have been medical school because I loved to be a doctor. However at that time in China, university graduates were assigned job sites by the government. Graduating as a doctor, I would have had a good chance of being assigned to a rural area again because of my poor roots as “smelly number 9”. So I chose dentistry instead because it was close to medicine and there was no dental clinic in the rural area. I did very well in my entrance examination because of my natural interest in science – I think it was in my genes. I entered my choice of university and was told that I had the highest score among the admitted.

By my third year of dental school, I realized that I didn’t want to be a dentist, making crowns and filling cavities – I wanted to study disease. The closest field in dental school was oral and maxillofacial pathology, which study diseases including cancers.

At the year of my graduation, certain quotas of students were given to each university to be selected to study abroad, based on their academic record, by the Ministry of Education. I was very lucky to be one of the two national winners in my university, and was sent to study at the University of Toronto in 1983. There, I studied oral pathology.

I came to Canada with no money and very limited English language. In China, there were no foreign broadcasts at the time, so I really didn’t know what to expect.  Arriving at the Toronto airport, I found no one there to pick me up (the Toronto Chinese Consul was supposed to send a Chinese student). Some kind strangers (fellow travelers on my plane) offered me quarters to phone and offered to take me to their home if I could find no one (I felt like crying, Canadians were so so nice!). But I didn’t even know the names of my professors. I went through the telephone book, and selected the head of international study professors and called her. To my utter amazement, she came to airport to pick me up—a total stranger—and let me stay in her home for the night. I was so moved by her kindness and started to fall in love with Canada.

After one year support from the Chinese government, I obtained scholarships to study for a PhD degree and a diploma and certificate in oral pathology. One year before my graduation, an oral pathologist job became available at UBC, and, needless to say, I got the job. There, I was able to work on bigger, cross-disciplinary projects, which was extremely satisfying for me.

In my next post, I will share more about these projects and the work I am doing today!