Obituaries: Kuan-Teh Jeang

NIH Mourns Death of Retrovirus Expert

Kuan-Teh Jeang, an accomplished virologist and chief of the Molecular Virology Section of the NIAID Laboratory of Molecular Microbiology, died suddenly on January 27, at age 54. He had worked at NIH since 1985. Jeang’s research focused on the gene regulation of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and how human T-cell lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1) causes leukemia. He was a prolific scientist who authored or co-authored more than 300 publications. He cofounded and served as editor-in-chief of the online journal Retrovirology. In this position, he helped establish an award to recognize midcareer scientists and advocated passionately for open access to scientific information.

Kuan Teh-Jeang and Michael Gottesman holding a large framed certificate


When introducing him as the honored speaker at the NIH George Koury Lecture on October 24, 2012, Deputy Director of Intramural Research Michael Gottesman (right) described Kuan-Teh Jeang (left) as a dynamo and prolific researcher. To see an archived video of the lecture, visit

“Teh was a talented researcher who believed strongly in the equal and global distribution of scientific knowledge,” said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci. “He made many important contributions to our understanding of HIV and HTLV-1, leaving a lasting legacy here at NIH and beyond. We will miss him deeply.”

Jeang also was an editor at Cell and Bioscience and an associate editor of Cancer Research. From 2010 to 2011, he served as president of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America, where he sought greater representation in leadership positions for Asian-American scientists. His recent awards include the International Retrovirology Association’s Dale McFarlin Award in 2011, Biomed Central’s Open Access “Editor of the Year” award in 2010, and research support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Teh’s death is a blow to the NIH, the retrovirus research community, and his many friends and colleagues around the world,” said Kathryn Zoon, director of the NIAID Division of Intramural Research. “He was a dynamic and thoughtful scientific leader who ran an incredibly creative and productive lab.”

Jeang earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore) in 1982 and 1984, respectively. He performed his postdoctoral studies with the late Dr. George Khoury at the National Cancer Institute and joined NIAID in 1987.

“Teh Jeang was a very special person,” said Malcolm Martin, chief of the NIAID Laboratory of Molecular Microbiology. ”His scientific achievements had an enormous impact on multiple areas of retrovirology, and his influence extended to the related fields of cellular and cancer biology.”

Jeang leaves behind his wife and three children, as well as an NIH community profoundly saddened by his passing.

Remembrances from Kuan Teh Jeang’s Memorial Service

Held at NIH, on February 8, 2013

Zhi-Ming Zheng, Senior Investigator, NCI

Today we gather together to remember Dr. Kuan-Teh Jeang’s legacy and his contributions to NIH, to virology, and to the Chinese community. We were very saddened and still in shock about the sudden loss of KT Jeang who had been a beloved husband, a father of three children, a dependable son-in-law, a trustable friend and colleague, a critical and friendly mentor, and a world-known virologist.

To remember him, the KT Jeang Memorial Committee—consisting of eight members from six NIH institutes and four members from four universities—has decided to organize a KT Jeang Symposium on Pathogens and Host Interactions in the coming months at NIH. The SCBA President, Dr. Xiao-Fan Wang from Duke University, has decided to establish a KT Jeang lectureship for a plenary talk and a KT Jeang Virology Symposium at our biannual SCBA international conference in Xi’an, China, July 19-22, 2013.

Paul Liu, Deputy Scientific Director, NHGRI

We are here today to remember and celebrate the life of Kuan-Teh Jeang. The two weeks since his passing haven’t made this day any easier, have they? I still feel numb—as numb as the day I heard the news. I will feel numb, I’m sure, two weeks from now and long after that. Like many of you, I just can’t believe that I can’t call up Teh for advice or, indeed, just call him for no reason at all.

We all are united in our diverse reasons for being here today. Teh was my friend and my colleague. What was Teh to you? He was a superb and insightful scientist. A warm and caring mentor. A highly successful journal editor. A role model. A tireless and inspiring leader. An advocate. A change agent. A 54-year-old child at heart. A father. A husband.

With Teh being so many things to so many of us, allow me to say a few words about Teh’s life, work, and personality.

Teh was born in Taiwan, but spent his childhood in Libya between the ages of 5 and 12. He came to the United States in 1970 as a teenager. A highly gifted student, Teh entered MIT as an undergraduate at age 16. Two years later he joined an accelerated program at Hopkins, receiving both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at the age of 25. Since 1985, he had been a scientist at NIH. He was first a postdoctoral fellow in George Khoury’s lab, and then set up his own group in 1988. He was tenured in 1993, and had been a section chief in the Laboratory of Molecular Microbiology in NIAID.

Teh was well known in the virology field, especially for his groundbreaking studies on HIV and HTLV-1 viruses. His contributions were numerous and seminal. It would probably take a whole day to describe them all. He addressed fundamental questions revolving mostly around the themes of HIV replication and pathogenesis, and how HTLV-1 transforms cells through its oncoproteins. Being a curious and inquisitive scientist, he sometimes forayed into other areas, as well, that often led to exciting surprises, such as his recent Cell paper reporting on a new disease mechanism for progeria, a premature aging syndrome.

Teh had been incredibly productive, having published more than 300 papers and edited six books. The importance and the impact of his papers can be measured by the number of citations of his papers, which is 19,456 with an h-index of 75. These are both exceptionally high numbers.

Teh was awarded for his achievements by elections to prestigious societies such as ASCI, AAP, AAAS (fellow), and Academia Sinica. He was a recipient of many awards and lectureships. Among them I think what Teh treasured the most was the 2012 Khoury Lecture at the NIH, in October. The Khoury Lecture series was initiated by Teh to honor his former mentor, Dr. George Khoury, an outstanding NIH scientist who also died in his prime. Previous Khoury lecturers include many luminaries in biomedical research, such as David Baltimore, Phil Sharp, Robert Tjian, Bert Vogelstein, and Robert Weinberg. The Khoury Lecture Teh delivered was one of the best lectures I have ever attended. He was masterful, eloquent, commanding, and explained complicated and specialized research topics in ways that could be easily understood by others outside of his field.

Teh was actively involved in scientific publishing. He was an associate editor of Cancer Research, and was on the editorial board of numerous other scientific journals, including the Journal of Virology and JBC. Teh was extremely proud of the journal Retrovirology, which he shepherded and had been its editor-in-chief since its inception. As I learned from retrovirologists close to Teh, each year they would receive an e-mail from him inviting them to submit manuscripts, to help with manuscript reviews, and to write review articles. He was most proud of the ever-rising impact factor of Retrovirology, now at 6.47, the highest among virology journals. For his efforts, Teh was named BioMed Central’s Open Access “Editor of the Year” in 2010.

Teh was a phenomenal mentor. He worked tirelessly for his students and postdocs, but also demanded the best of them. From what I heard, at the biennial HTLV-1 meetings, there would always be a gathering of the alumni of the Teh lab in a nice restaurant, and the room would be full of laughter, and the energy in the room would invariably be highly charged. Needless to say, he always footed the bill. His current and former students and postdocs adored him. Postdocs in his lab landed good jobs afterwards. That is because he would go out of his way to advance their careers, getting them great publications, writing them strong letters, and making phone calls. Teh’s warm and caring supports also extended to many friends and colleagues outside his lab. He would nominate them for awards and elections to prestigious positions. He would help them with their experiments and publications. He had countless collaborators (myself included). He would extend a helping hand to friends who need personal assistance as well. Here is a story that [a colleague] from across the street at USUHS told me: In 1999, [the colleague's] wife was diagnosed with a type of cancer that was relatively rare in the U.S. It was Teh, through his large network of friends, who identified a renowned expert on this type of cancer, who eventually cured his wife of the disease. This is just one of many examples of Teh’s kindness. (In fact, Joe’s wife, Qihui, is sitting in the audience today)

Outside of the lab—hmmmm, maybe inside the lab, too—Teh was a college basketball fanatic. Teh had many passions other than college basketball. In fact, he had strong opinions about many things. I did say “change agent” earlier. However, Teh was not the type who would force his ideas on you, even though he thought he was right. But he would keep trying, however subtle, until you turned around. You may not always agree with him initially, but after listening to his articulations, which were almost always eloquent and insightful, you would often begin to think about the issues from a different perspective. That often led you to re-examine the issues. The “salesmanship” or the “persuader” side of Teh had served him well for his causes. Look at how many people are in this room, how much our chapter has grown, and how much stronger the SCBA has become.

Teh was a long time member of the SCBA (which stands for Society for Chinese Bioscientists in America) and served as the chapter president for the Baltimore-DC chapter in 2005. In 2010, he was elected as the President of SCBA for a two-year term (2011–2012). In fact he just stepped down at the end of December. During his tenure, he converted the budget of the Society from deficit to surplus and organized a highly successful biennial meeting in 2011. He tirelessly promoted the Society and recruited many new members during his two years of service. Moreover, Teh conceived and guided the creation of a new journal, Cell & Bioscience, as the first official journal of the SCBA. This new journal was perhaps the biggest achievement of Teh’s tenure as the SCBA president. The journal has been very successful in its first two years of existence. It was accepted for tracking impact factors by ISI starting with the first published paper, a fate normally given only to publishers such as Cell, Nature and Science series. Teh was instrumental in this. The journal should serve the SCBA well in the future, both scientifically and financially. I encourage you all to submit your manuscripts to Cell & Bioscience.

To many friends and colleagues at the NIH, Teh was best known for his passionate and undeterred calls for fair representation of Asian Americans in leadership positions. Teh was a pioneer in raising the issue of “glass ceiling” for Asian-American scientists. I still remember the first phone call I received from him, in late 2005, shortly after the publication of the famous Science article, in which Teh was interviewed extensively on this issue (Science 310:606, 2005). Initially I was skeptical, since I thought I had never experienced any discrimination myself, especially not at the NIH. But the data Teh showed me were striking. The data described in the Science article showed a clear bottom heavy/top light pattern for Asian scientists at NIH, with large numbers of Asian trainees but very few at leadership positions. Why did the numbers exist and how could we change the trend? Teh was the first to ask these questions at the NIH and had called for a change for many years.

In preparing this eulogy, I discovered a Science article by Ron R. Hoy in 1993, on the topic of “A ‘Model Minority’ Speaks Out on Cultural Shyness” (Science 262:1117, 1993). In this article Hoy argued that one reason for the numbers is the perceived perpetual “foreignness” of Asians. No matter how long you have been in this country, even if you were born here, you are considered a foreigner. One example in the article was that of a 23-year-old graduate student named Kuan-Teh Jeang, who was preparing two scientific talks at a Cold Spring Harbor Meeting in 1982, and who learned that a prominent virologist had asked a co-worker whether this Jeang guy spoke English. Teh quipped that the stereotyped perception was: “If they can’t pronounce your name, then you probably can’t pronounce theirs either.” Another widespread stereotype of Asians is that they prefer and are content to be just workers and not leaders. These views of Asians likely contributed to the “glass ceiling” or so-called “bamboo ceiling” placed over Asian Americans at the NIH and at other academic institutions.

Teh had been very outspoken on this issue. He would talk to anyone at the NIH who would listen. He tried to motivate his Asian-American colleagues to work with him on this issue (and had been very successful in doing so). He would persuade and enlist helps from his colleagues of other ethnic groups. He was very active on the NIH Asian-Pacific Islander Advisory Committee, which advises the Director of OEODM on issues related to Asian American employees. He met with top leaders of NIH to discuss this issue on multiple occasions. He even testified before the EEOC Commissioners in 2008.

Teh liked to compare the situation of Asian scientists with African-American football players. In fact he mentioned this comparison at the SCBA Baltimore-DC Chapter holiday dinner two months ago, the last official SCBA gathering he attended. He pointed out that even though there were many black players in the NFL, very few, if any, were head coaches or quarterbacks 20 years ago. Now there are many of them. Such changes didn’t happen overnight, and would not have happened without conscious and serious efforts from both sides—the players and the league management. Teh had been a champion for increased representation of Asian-American scientists at leadership positions at the NIH. Even though we still have a long way to go, I am happy to report that we have made progress. Asian scientists now occupy eight percent of branch/lab chief positions at NIH, up from less than five percent in 2005. We need to thank Teh for this.

In closing I would like to quote a couple of comments that Teh made. First, Teh said during his EEOC testimony in 2008: “How would I characterize the state of Asian-American scientists at the NIH today? . . . My short answer [is] that we have come a long way, but we still have miles to go before we can rest.”

In his annual holiday greetings to me and many of you last December, he repeated a similar line: “I can say that we have come a long way. We may not have received all the answers yet, but at least it is my impression that we are asking the right questions and others are paying attention.”

I also would like to quote the German writer Goethe, who said “A useless life is an early death.” If the converse is true, by Goethe’s standards, Teh lived a long, long life. A similar Chinese phrase is 人固有一死,或重于泰山,或轻于鸿毛. Teh has served the community tirelessly and unselfishly, so he died 重于泰山. Teh will continue to live in the ideals he has instilled in his children, in his postdocs, and—I don’t hesitate to say—in me and surely in many of you.
We will miss you, Teh. Please rest peacefully in heaven. Those of us you inspired will continue the quest you began many years ago and will not rest until we reach the goals you dedicated your life for.

Thank you all.

Venkat Yedavalli, Staff Scientist, KT Jeang Lab

I would like to speak on behalf of Dr. Teh Jeang’s Lab. We all in Dr. Jeang’s Lab are deeply saddened by his sudden passing and would like to offer our condolences to his family and his friends. Dr. Teh Jeang was a great and successful scientist. To all of us who worked in his Laboratory he was also a great mentor. His success can be judged by the large number of his postdocs who have established highly successful scientific careers. I believe all of us both present and past postdocs have benefited significantly from his scientific wisdom and advice. On January 27 we lost a great scientist, terrific mentor and a friend.

Every year before the December holidays Teh will send us all an e-mail and in a couple of sentences thank us all for the work we did that year and wish us a prosperous new year. I would like to share the e-mail we received last year. He wrote to us:

Quote: “I want to take this opportunity to again to remind you of three points
One, know and understand yourself. Understand what you want to achieve and know that it will come with a price. Don’t deceive yourself. Playing games with yourself and playing the blame game is not useful to anyone.
Two, dream big and find someone who is willing to believe in your dreams. I believe in each of your dreams, but some of you need to convince yourself to believe in your own dream. Again, please remember that dreams don’t become reality unless you are willing to accept hard work and pay the price.
Third, please plan ahead. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Planning is like understanding and dreaming; it is also useless if you don’t have the discipline to stick to your plan. Rome was not built in a single day. Tangible progress takes time. It has taken me 30 years of working 7 days a week to get to where I am; please don’t give up so easily. If you are willing to keep the discipline, whether anyone is watching or not, you will ultimately succeed.”

On a personal note, I joined Dr. Teh Jeang’s lab in 1999, and was associated with latter half of his career at NIH. I am among the very few of Teh’s postdocs who had the privilege of working next to his bench. He worked tirelessly seven days a week, arriving before any of us came to the lab and would leave after most of us. His passion for science and mentoring can be seen in his countless e-mails we received from him on how to improve ourselves. One of things I would like to mention about Teh that I experienced is that he was a very caring person underneath his tough exterior. While I was going through the e-mails I received from him over the years. One of the e-mails stood out. He wrote: “I didn’t get a chance to wish you personally a happy holiday. I hope you take a couple of days to relax. Thank you for all of your good work this year. best wishes, Teh

Roland Owens, Assistant Director, Office of Intramural Research

For those of you who do not know me, I am Roland Owens, Assistant Director of the NIH Office of Intramural Research. I am also a new member of the Society of Chinese Bioscientists in America, due to the encouragement of Teh and others in the SCBA.

I have had two careers at NIH and Teh Jeang played a role in both of them. We first met over 10 years ago, through the NIH Virology Interest Group. Teh was one of the strongest advocates for virology at NIH and was a leader within the virology interest group. He organized the nominations of many virologists for prestigious lectures at NIH, including being the driving force behind the George Khoury lecture. I am glad that we were able to honor him within his lifetime by having him deliver the Khoury lecture in 2012.

As I was making the transition to administration, we worked together on a search committee for a research group leader. It was in this context that I first got to see Teh’s other passion. He was a staunch advocate for diversity and inclusion of minorities, not only in the biomedical research workforce as a whole, but in leadership positions. That search resulted in the hire of one of our few Hispanic tenured senior investigators at NIH.

Most of you know that Teh was always pushing for greater recognition of scientists of Asian ancestry, but did you also know that he was an equally passionate advocate for greater inclusion of persons with mental disabilities in the biomedical sciences, particularly those with autism spectrum disorders. In many surprising ways, we were kindred spirits. We were both born in the same year, we both started college at age 16, we both went to Hopkins, we both came to NIH and we were both advocates for diversity. I will miss him, as will many in the NIH community.

Thank you.