In his first lecture on campus, Tom Hei’s biology professor addressed him as “Mr. Hi.” The Beijing native, whose name rhymes with “hay,” learned to respond to both pronunciations.
Hei moved from mainland China with his mother and most of his siblings in 1959 and settled in Hong Kong, where his father was working. After graduating high school in 1973, a relative who was studying at the University of Minnesota gave him a list of universities in the upper Midwest and Hei selected UW-Whitewater.
He arrived in Chicago on January 4, 1974, and took a Greyhound bus to campus the next day.
“It was the first time I’d seen snow,” he said. “When I left Hong Kong it was a balmy 70 degrees and when I arrived in Chicago it was 10 degrees below.”
“It was a life-changing experience. I remember the details of the day: arriving at the bus depot in Whitewater, seeing snow for the first time, taking the taxi to campus, and arriving at Lee Hall,” then the residence hall for international students who stayed over for winter break. After the start of classes, Hei moved to Goodhue Hall.
“It was my first time away from home,” he said. “I made friends. My first roommate, an art student named Kevin, was thin and had long, blond hair. After I sent a photo of the two of us to my grandmother, she said, ‘Why is your roommate a girl?’”
At the time, there were about 80 Chinese students on campus, mostly from Hong Kong. Hei joined the Chinese Student Association and was twice elected to be its president. The group was a forum for promoting Asian culture and sponsored myriad activities from bowling, ping-pong and other games to an elaborate three-course Chinese dinner with entertainment that served as a fundraising event. The program included a cultural dance, a martial arts demonstration, a play and a costume show that used rented costumes from the Chinese Consulate in Chicago.
“I have a photo of Chancellor Connor and his wife from that dinner,” said Hei.
Hei met his future wife, Monica ’77, who was also a member of the student club.
Hei returns to campus on April 22, 2017, to receive a Distinguished Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement as part of the university’s Founders Day celebration.
When classes began in 1974, academics were an adjustment for Hei, who was used to learning by memorization, the teaching model used in Hong Kong at the time. There he’d been the class monitor and school prefect, helping to maintain discipline and making sure the skirts weren’t too short or the hair too long.
“Here we engaged in open discussion, and the learning was based on the individual’s own pace,” he said. “It was a good and memorable experience.”
Hei knew he wanted to be a biology major before he came to campus.
“My mother passed away from cancer when I was 12,” he said. “So I wanted to find out more about the cancer process.”
Hei worked on campus as a lab assistant in Upham Hall, cleaning beakers and other lab equipment, identifying plants, and feeding and caring for lab animals. He describes a strong campus culture of nurturing young minds and taking an interest in student success.
“There were professors who really took an interest in students, providing career counseling and talking about the options we had.”
After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in biology in 1976, Hei went on to do his graduate training in experimental pathology at the Institute of Pathology at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. He remembers arriving with his then-fiancee, Monica, in 1977.
“At the time, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire a few years earlier,” he said. “We went from beautiful Whitewater Lake to the middle of what was a bad area at the time.”
After completing his Ph.D., he was offered opportunities at several leading institutions but decided to accept a position as a junior research associate in radiation at Columbia University in New York City. He has been on the faculty since 1983, and currently serves as professor and vice-chair of radiation oncology and associate director of the Center for Radiological Research.
Hei is internationally known for his groundbreaking work in radiation biology. Hei and his research team were the first to discover that targeted cytoplasmic irradiation can result in mutation in the nucleus of the cells they hit, and have made major contributions to the understanding of the basic molecular mechanism by which asbestos induces cancer through the induction of large gene and chromosomal mutations by producing reactive radical species. He has served as chair and panel member in numerous National Institutes of Health peer review panels and has received 24 years of continuous NIH funding for his research. He has published more than 240 peer-reviewed articles.
When Hei reflects on his career, he is appreciative of the opportunities he received.
“I was the first in my family to graduate college, the first to earn a Ph.D., and the first to be a university professor. UW-Whitewater had a very well-rounded curriculum, with a good mixture of liberal arts and sciences.”
Hei, who became a U.S. citizen in 1992, lives in Spring Valley, New York, with his wife Monica. The two have one adult daughter, Evelyn.