Oral Histories from the Archives: Nelson Jen An Chao

Oral history interviews are some of our favorite items to share from the Medical Center Archives’ collections. This month we are featuring a recent interview with Dr. Nelson Jen An Chao. He was interviewed by Joseph O'Connell as part of the Department of Medicine's Oral History Project on March 25, 2021.  Dr. Nelson Jen An Chao

Dr. Chao is a Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. His leadership at Duke includes roles as Chief of the Division of Cell Therapy in the Department of Medicine and Director of the Global Cancer Program at the Duke Global Health Institute.

He received his medical degree from Yale University and completed his Residency in Medicine as well as a Fellowship in Oncology, Medicine at Stanford University. He first came to Duke in 1996 as a Temporary Instructor in the Department of Medicine, Medical Oncology. In 1997 he was appointed Associate Professor in Medicine, Medical Oncology, and, in 1998, he was made Acting Chief of the Division of Medical Oncology in the Department of Medicine. During his tenure at Duke, he has worked to rebuild Duke’s stem cell transplant program. The program is one of the strongest in the country, due in large part to Chao's leadership. 

During the interview, Chao discusses his upbringing in Brazil, his reflections on his medical training, his observations on transplant as a complex medical issue, and a description of his work leading the Duke Global Cancer Program. When asked about the impact of his multicultural upbringing, he shared this interesting insight:

“It's funny, because one of the things I've learned – about 20-plus years ago maybe now -- is I've learned that before any major decision, it really helps to ask the question in a different language. I think it stops your brain for a second. So it's actually been really interesting looking back, because my folks from Shanghai [and] I grew up in Taiwan until age four. And so we spoke Chinese at home. And then I spoke Portuguese in the streets. And then I went to American high school in Brazil, so I spoke English. And when I came to college, every freshman had to take an expository writing class in the freshman year. And I remember getting back these papers I wrote full of red ink, because all the sentence construction was wrong. Because the grammar is different. And I remember it probably took [until] maybe my junior year of college when I finally switched to dreaming in English. But what I find actually [when I'm making a decision like] we're going to buy a house or buy a car, I'm sort of thinking about if this is the right thing to do, it's really helpful to stop and ask the same question in a different language. And then go through the thought process because I think it helps break those pathways. And so when I see patients and I try to decide what to do, I try to adopt the same strategy. And stop and think of them, and the courses of their illness, and what to offer in a different language. Because I think whatever bias comes through -- which we all have, and you know, there's not a lot of things we can do to prevent those biases -- I think it helps you to bring those to the forefront and understand [them] so that your decision is informed by facts rather than biases.”

To read the full interview transcript, visit MedSpace. To learn more about other oral histories, please contact the Archives.