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First Person: MacArthur Fellow On Growing Up In A Small Village In China And His Passion For Chemistry

Photo caption:

Photo by Michael Lipkin

Scripps Research Institute chemist Jin-Quan Yu in his laboratory on September 30, 2016. Yu received a MacArthur fellowship this year for his work breaking the connections between carbon and hydrogen atoms.

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Special Feature First Person

KPBS Midday Edition's First Person series tells the stories of average and not-so-average San Diegans in their own words. Their experiences, both universal and deeply personal, offer a unique lens into the news of the day.

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation honored nearly two dozen scientists, artists and thinkers with its annual "genius grants."

One of this year's geniuses is San Diegan Jin-Quan Yu, a chemist at Scripps Research Institute.

He works on breaking down the very strong connections between carbon and hydrogen atoms known as C-H bonds. His research could help make new drugs more quickly and without as much waste.

Yu grew up in a small village in China, where he had to travel miles by foot and boat to go to school.

"I think persistence is extraordinarily important, and I think that has a lot to do with my childhood," Yu said.

He said his parents pushed him.

"It's unfortunate my dad passed away last year," Yu said. "So I guess I didn't have a chance even for me to tell him that I'm successful because I never told him. For him I'm still struggling, so I was telling him I'm working on something but I still haven't gotten it to work. And that's what he knew, all he knew. He always asked me, 'Have you done it? Have you done it?' But unfortunately before he passed away last year, I still haven't done it. So I wish he was still alive. It's tough."

Yu's mother is still around.

"My mom is still doing OK," he said. "But my mom is more difficult to explain to. All she cares about is she knew that I'm not very good doing farmwork. I had to really try hard to do it. I was never good at it. She always feels that 'You don't have to do farmwork and now you are doing something you like.' That's something she's very happy with, I guess."

Hit the play button above to hear Yu tell his story.

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