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By: Jennifer Bails
The rain won't stop. Usually Qi Lu goes home every Sunday to visit his parents. To get there, the teaching assistant pedals his bicycle for a couple of hours across the sprawling metropolis of Shanghai-one of China's largest cities. The long, exhausting journey hardly makes for a day of rest for Lu, who teaches the other six days of the week.
The loving motivation for those journeys began not long after Lu was born in the eastern port city in 1961, shortly before the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Envisioned as a way to put the country back on the path to socialism, the mass movement resulted in a decade of widespread fear and instability as Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong sought to secure his power. Mao mobilized bands of Red Guards to attack intellectuals and liberals, terrorizing China's cities and throwing its urban economy into turmoil. Historians recount how millions were forced into manual labor, and tens of thousands were executed.
In that era of terror, Lu's mother would often go to bed hungry to ensure that her young son had enough food in the morning. Fearing the persecution rife in the cities, Lu's parents ultimately decided to send their son to live with his grandfather in a rural village in the neighboring Jiangsu Province. Growing up there, Lu had no electricity, plumbing, or basic amenities such as soap and toothpaste. Families received food rations for nine months and scrambled to survive for the other three. Meat was a once-a-year luxury reserved for Chinese New Year celebrations. The village had just one school, and its lone teacher had students from about 400 families. Only the truly elite students had the opportunity to attend college. Lu hoped to be one of the chosen few, so he could study engineering and one day work in a shipbuilding factory. "That was the most glorified job," he recalls.
With so few collegiate opportunities for the massive population, China had academic and physical requirements in place. Lu, no taller than 5-foot-4, tried to eat enough before the national entrance examination to tip the scales in his favor, but he missed the engineering weight requirement-50 kilograms (about 110 pounds). Studying physics or chemistry wasn't an option, either, because he was near-sighted, and therefore disqualified from those highly competitive fields. That left mathematics or computer science. With a math degree, perhaps Lu could become a middle school teacher, but a computer science degree might lead to a radio factory job. Lu talked it over with his parents. "It wasn't that I knew what computer science was," he says. "My parents just thought that radio factory work was better than teaching middle school, so I chose computer science."
Lu never got that radio factory job, though. He did earn his undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science at Fudan University, one of the oldest, most selective universities in the country. He did so well that he was chosen to become a faculty member. The prestigious position didn't make him forget his upbringing and how his parents did all they could to keep him safe. That's why every Sunday he rides his bike to their home to visit. Except this particular Sunday. It's raining too hard.
As he's hunkered down for the day in his faculty dorm room, there is a knock at the door. It's a professor who needs his help-a computer scientist from America is giving a guest lecture at Fudan, but because of the storm, it looks like attendance may be embarrassingly sparse. Lu agrees to fill one of the empty seats.
The lecturer is Edmund M. Clarke from Carnegie Mellon University, who is introducing his early research in model checking-a method he pioneered for detecting bugs in computer hardware and software. During the talk, Lu interrupts with several probing questions. Afterward, he continues his discussion with the Carnegie Mellon researcher.
"I was very impressed by his questions and his comments, and I talked to him for awhile, and it was evident that he was quite brilliant," says Clarke, who undoubtedly knows a thing or two about brilliance himself. In 2007, the FORE Systems University Professor of Computer Science won the A.M. Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery-widely recognized as the Nobel Prize of computing-for his career's work in model checking. Clarke was further impressed by several conference articles that Lu mentioned he had published in a related field.
"Would you be interested in coming to the United States for a PhD?" asks Clarke.
"That would be a dream," Lu replies without any hesitation. But it's not something he could afford. Clarke tells him that he will see what he can do. Several months later, Lu receives a letter awarding him a stipend to pursue his doctoral degree at Carnegie Mellon, even waiving the $45 application fee, which he couldn't have paid on his $10-a-month salary. He becomes the second Chinese student admitted to the School of Computer Science, arriving in Pittsburgh in 1988 with little more than $50 to his name.(Continued …)