Alum from Taiwan Remembers Opportunity UTEP Provided

By Sandy Hicks

UTEP News Service

Taiwan had been under martial law for more than 20 years when Keelung Hong left in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, $200 in his pocket and a one-way plane ticket to America. 

“It was my inheritance in advance,” said Hong, Ph.D., from his San Francisco office where he serves as the founder, chairman and CEO of Taiwan Liposome Company Ltd., a biopharmaceutical company focused on the research, development and commercialization of innovative pharmaceutical products. Hong returned to UTEP on April 19 to deliver the Fessinger-Springer Memorial Lecture.Keelung Hong, Ph.D., '70 delivered the Fessinger-Springer Memorial Lecture at UTEP in April. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceKeelung Hong, Ph.D., '70 delivered the Fessinger-Springer Memorial Lecture at UTEP in April. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Hong was a native of rural Taiwan and it was likely that he and his friends would have faced political persecution due to the Chinese government attempts to suppress Taiwanese intellectuals if they had not been recruited to come to UTEP. It was through the efforts of the late UTEP Professor Emeritus of Chemistry James W. Whalen, Ph.D., that Hong received an invitation, along with two of his friends and now UTEP alumni Teh-Chang Chou and Tony Lin, to become part of the first group of students in the chemistry department’s graduate program.  

Hong said he had very little idea of what to expect in America when his plane touched down first in Seattle before flying on to El Paso.

“I was puzzled by the drinking fountains in the Seattle airport – they gave water to others without hand operation but when I walked up nothing happened!” he recalled. Hong and his fellow graduate students did not realize how unusual it was for the chairman of the department to pick up an incoming graduate school student from the airport, especially during a holiday (Labor Day) weekend.

Whalen did much more than that for the three Taiwanese in the first year of the chemistry graduate program at UTEP.

“He persuaded the manager of a private housing facility off campus to rent us rooms with no deposit and to wait for payment till the end of the month, when we got paid as teaching assistants at UTEP – I will always be grateful for his help in surviving in a new country,” Hong reminisced. “Without his help I would never have been able to come to America. I feel that I validated Professor Whalen’s belief in backing my inclusion in the first class of chemistry graduate students and was very pleased to give the first Dr. James W. Whalen Endowed Memorial Lecture in 2005.”

Whalen’s acceptance of the three Taiwanese students into graduate school opened doors into the world of research they never expected. In Taiwanese universities of the time, students had to request journals and books from a librarian who would find it for them and let them look at it, but they could not check it out and take it home.

“The open stacks of UTEP were a delightful revelation to me,” Hong said. “I spent a lot of time in the library going directly to what I wanted to read, which eventually helped me to get all ‘A’ grades leaving UTEP.”

While at UTEP, Hong conducted his master’s research on molecular structure under the supervision of chemistry Professor Michael I. Davis, Ph.D.

“This was a new and very fascinating to me then,” Hong said. “Dr. Davis supervised his students like a mentor and his encouragement increased my self-confidence and prepared me to apply and go on to Berkeley two years later with my UTEP M.S. degree.”

“Keelung is and always was an outstanding intellect,” Davis said. “It was a joy having him as a student in class and as a member of my research group. Students come and go but he has remained a friend for over 40 years.”

After earning a Master of Science degree in chemistry in 1970 from UTEP, Hong went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California, Berkley. He did postdoctoral research at Stanford University and then became a research scientist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) for 20 years.

In 1998, Hong and other associates from UCSF founded Hermes Biosciences, Inc., to develop technologies enabling the targeted delivery of small molecule drugs, including chemotherapies, with the goal to improve cancer treatment safety and efficacy. In 2009, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals Inc. purchased the company for an undisclosed sum.

Hong founded Taiwan Liposome Company Ltd. in 1997 and established TLC Biopharmaceuticals in San Francisco in 2005. In 2010, he established TLC Biopharmaceuticals B.V. in Leiden, Netherlands.

Hong now resides in San Francisco and in addition to serving as the founder, chairman and chief executive officer of TLC,  has authored and co-authored more than 100 scientific publications and two social science books, Taiwanese Culture, Taiwanese Society and Looking through Taiwan. The latter was co-written with sociologist, anthropologist and independent scholar Stephen O. Murray.

 “After decades living in a cool San Francisco Bay area,” Hong said, “sometimes I miss not only El Paso’s dry, warm weather, but the warmth of people there at UTEP.”