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Dr. Ken Chu's Retirement
Leaves Big Shoes to Fill

Dr. Kenneth Chu, chief of the Disparities Research Branch, National Cancer Institute's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD), who pioneered some of the first real medical research on disparities in the underserved as the discipline made headway in the 1990s, announced his retirement, effective New Year's Eve 2010.

Chu describes his 39 years and two months of government service as a long and winding road.

Fast rewind four decades, back to when Chu's post-doctoral research at NIH's Division of Computer Research and Technology was coming to an end. The young researcher had dreams of working in industry, combining his chemistry background with computer research in the area of artificial intelligence. The only problem was that he was a man ahead of his time. It would be 20 years before that field would begin to flourish.

Learning that NCI was looking for someone who could test chemicals in animals to assess their cancer-causing potential, Chu turned his career focus from industry to public service, and took a position in the Carcinogenesis Testing Program at the Division of Cancer Cause and Prevention. It was a lucky break for Chu, but even luckier for NCI, it turns out. Chu ended up working in that area for about a decade, co-authoring more than 175 NCI Carcinogen Bioassay Technical Reports assessing 200 chemicals, the results of which have been used to regulate carcinogenic chemicals.

Taking another turn on that winding road, Chu's second decade of service to NCI, in the 1980s, saw him work with Drs. Bob Tarone and Charles Smart in the area of breast cancer and early detection guidelines, at the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. He published the first paper based on clinical trials that showed mammography and clinical breast examination were beneficial for women aged 40–49. These findings helped lay the foundation for recommendations that mammography screenings begin at age 40 rather than 50. "I am most proud of the impact of that research and its significant benefits to women," says Chu.

In the 1990s, Chu, while still at the Early Detection Branch of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, focused his efforts on analyzing cancer statistics, trying to find explanations for the declines in cancer mortality rates for breast and colorectal cancers. He reported that decreases in breast and colorectal cancer incidence and mortality among whites, were likely due to screening for early detection of these cancers. New cancer incidence variables, such as mortality by stage of diagnosis, were introduced and, to this day, are still updated annually.

Another detour in the road in the mid-90s led Chu to join the NCI Office of Special Populations Research. When he first started there, Asian Americans were not allowed to compete for funding to do research addressing minority concerns. Working with Asian leaders, such as Drs. Fred Li (Li-Fraumeni Syndrome), Moon Chen (National Cancer Advisory Board member), Howard Koh (DHHS Assistant Secretary of Health), Reggie Ho (first Asian to be National President of the American Cancer Society), Grace Ma (Center for Asian Health, Temple University) and Susan Shinagawa (noted Asian survivor/thriver), Chu paved the way for Asian Americans, encouraging them to actively engage in conducting disparities research. He helped grow the first generation of Asian American science- and community-based researchers working in the field of cancer health disparities. "Ken's passion and commitment to including Asian-American populations in all aspects of cancer research, training, education and outreach is a true example of how one person can make a difference for improving the health outcomes for an entire population," says Dr. Sanya Springfield, Director of CRCHD.

After making gains for Asian Americans in the field of health disparities, Chu recognized it was vital to ensure all diverse populations were served. In his last decade at NCI, he nurtured the creation of a Center–CRCHD, dedicated to just that. He provided leadership in the establishment of a number of community-based programs for diverse populations, including the development of the $100 million Community Networks Center Program, consisting of 23 government-funded sites mandated to establish centers across the US for reducing cancer disparities through outreach, research and training. Chu's major legacy at CRCHD, however, was laying the foundation for and spawning cancer health disparities research encompassing not just social sciences, but also basic sciences.

"Ken Chu is one of those extraordinary individuals who, for almost four decades, made seminal observations that are key to our understanding of cancer health disparities research," says Springfield. Chu was not only a prolific researcher but, as Chief of the Disparities Research Branch, he was also a great mentor. Those who worked with him affirm he helped raise their game to a higher level.

Looking back, Chu claims he has a force inside of him that he doesn't quite understand, but it's one that drives him to seek the truth and strive for excellence. He admits that may have caused him to step on some people's toes. "It's just that when I see something wrong, I feel the need to stand up and right it," he says. Chu wasn't shy about his opinions, but they were always voiced with honesty and compassion, say those who know him well.

Although Chu may have chanced upon his first job in the cancer field, "Do what you love and love what you do" are apt words to describe his long term at NCI. "It's a pleasure to pursue opportunities you perceive to be important. It never feels like work because you're doing what you love," says Chu. "That's the beauty of the NIH atmosphere."

Reflecting on his long and prolific career, Chu muses that "Science is like sand on a beach. Whatever footprints you make may change over time and may even get washed away as new discoveries are made. It's a humbling experience," he says. "You hope you make an impact, but you don't know how long it will last."

While no one knows for sure how long Chu's footprints will last, what is certain is that there are big shoes to fill at CRCHD and NCI.

Chu hasn't any firm retirement plans as of yet, "which is not like me to not plan ahead," he laughs. All he knows is that at a minimum, it will include golf, travel and quality time with his wife, Irene, daughters, Katherine Hickman and Kristine Chu, and grandchildren, Chloe and Haley Hickman. Judging from his past, it will be a retirement path with many interesting twists and turns along the way.

Updated: 07/08/11