One-on-One with Zu-hua Gao

Dr. Zu-hua Gao

From his childhood in a small village in China’s Shandong province, to some of the world’s top universities in Canada and the United States, Dr. Zu-hua Gao’s sense of responsibility, accountability and drive in pursuit of his academic goals has never wavered.

Over the past 30 years, Dr. Gao has become a passionate educator, researcher and practising surgical pathologist. As a clinician, he completed pathology residency training at Dalhousie University and a subspecialty pathology fellowship at the University of Chicago. As a research scientist, he obtained his PhD degree from Peking Union Medical College and completed postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the field of transplant immunology and cancer pathology.

He has also held academic leadership roles at the University of Calgary and McGill University.

Now, as Head of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the UBC Faculty of Medicine, Dr. Gao describes his goals and aspirations and reveals his challenging first job.

Who inspires you and why?

I was extremely lucky to have great mentors, friends and family members — especially my parents and my wife — who inspired, guided and supported me at different stages of my career and my personal life.

The person who inspires me the most is former U.S. President Barack Obama. His famous quote “Yes, we can!” encourages me when I face seemingly impossible or difficult tasks.

For you, what makes UBC different?

First, the people: It gives me tremendous gratitude and satisfaction to have the privilege of working with our extremely talented teams of scientists, educators, clinicians, trainees and supporting staff members.

Second, the culture: An environment that values diversity, academics, collegiality, innovation and entrepreneurship.

And finally, the support and guidance from visionary and strategic leaders in the Faculty, university and health authorities.

Best piece of advice:

When I was about seven or eight years old, I helped my father build a wall around our yard. We lived in the countryside of China’s Shandong province and the yard was quite large. It seemed like an impossible mission for a small boy like me. My father told me, “Son, we just do it one brick at a time and it will get done.” Now whenever I am facing a huge project, I handle it “one brick at a time.”

First job:

My first paid job was working in a brick factory during my time as a college student. I was tall and slim, wore glasses, and looked completely different from the other much stronger workers. People there joked that I would not last three days because the job was too harsh for a student like me. By the end of my first day, my hands were full of blisters, and I felt almost paralyzed. But I stayed and pushed through, working there for 45 days. I not only made enough money to pay for my next semester’s tuition, but I also became physically stronger and learned the power of perseverance.

Secret talent:

I have been passionate about practising martial arts almost every day since I was a child. This habit has helped me maintain good health and a positive spirit, particularly during challenging times.

What are your main goals or aspirations?

Working with our learners, faculty, staff and partners, we have developed a five-year strategic plan for the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Collectively, we aspire to contribute to the transformation of medicine through a continuous search for new knowledge to enable innovative diagnostics and therapeutics. We are committed to further integrating clinical faculty into academic activities, paying attention to the needs of the community, and incorporating a full range of perspectives in the department’s decision-making. Our vision is to “Transform laboratory medicine and our understanding of disease for better health,” which aligns with the Faculty of Medicine’s strategic plan.

My personal aspiration is to ensure that we fulfill the promises and plans made in our strategic planning document, and to take the already excellent department to its next level of accomplishment.

How do you like to recharge?

Swimming and practising Tai Chi.

Favourite spot in B.C.

British Columbia has some of the world’s best natural beauty.

My favourite spot is the UBC Vancouver campus, where the academic atmosphere and the uplifting spirits of constant learning and innovation from students makes me feel younger and energized.

Published: February 2024