Morgan Chu, a member of the City of Hope board of directors and longtime supporter of City of Hope’s Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences, is one of the world’s preeminent intellectual property litigators. He joined Irell & Manella LLP as an associate in 1977 and became a partner in 1982; he was co-managing partner of the firm from 1997 to 2003 and now chairs the litigation group. Chu’s decades-long career as an IP lawyer has been distinguished in its scope and impact (it also led to his relationship with City of Hope). As lead trial counsel in some of the world’s most consequential technology cases, he’s achieved more than $5 billion in judgments for clients. He’s been named among the “100 Most Influential Lawyers in America” by The National Law Journal, and in 2014 he was inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame by the Litigation Section of the State Bar of California.
In addition to their support of the graduate school, Chu and his wife, Helen, are responsible for endowing the Morgan & Helen Chu Director’s Chair of the Beckman Research Institute held by Steven T. Rosen, M.D., who is engaged in groundbreaking work to develop innovative treatments for lymphoma patients and women with HER2-positive breast cancer, and the Morgan & Helen Chu Dean's Chair of the Graduate School of Biological Sciences. They also endowed an annual fellowship that provides an academic award to a student with great potential. Chu chairs both the City of Hope National Medical Center board of directors and the City of Hope Medical Foundation. The graduate school awarded him an honorary doctoral degree in 2009.
If there is one theme that consistently emerges when talking with Chu, it’s that he is a voracious and eclectic learner. Whatever the context, personal or professional, he seeks knowledge in all forms, from any potential source. “I’ve always had an interest in learning new things, and I still have it,” he says simply. Soft-spoken and full of good humor, adorned with his standard bowtie, Chu sat down with Vice Dean Yilun Liu, Ph.D., to talk about the origins of his relationship with City of Hope, what makes the graduate school uniquely attractive to international students, and how he managed to convince UCLA to let him in without a high school diploma.
CITY OF HOPE: How did you and Helen first come into contact with City of Hope and decide to support its graduate school and other research efforts?
MORGAN CHU: Irell & Manella, my law firm, started working with City of Hope in the late 1990s. One of the first major projects that I was involved with happened to be a dispute we had with Genentech Inc. that involved what we called the Riggs-Itakura patents, named after the principal investigators. [Arthur D. Riggs, Ph.D., the Samuel Rahbar Chair in Diabetes & Drug Discovery and director emeritus of Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope, is a world-renowned expert in diabetes who developed technology that led to the manufacture of the first synthetic human insulin.] Eventually we filed suit.
A wonderful result of that was that I, and a little later, Helen, got to meet lots of people related to City of Hope. This included scientists, lab technicians, nurses, receptionists, people involved in management of the overall enterprise, people related to the graduate school, a wonderful army of volunteers. And there was not one person we ever met who did not positively impress us with being helpful — to us, to strangers, to patients, to patients’ families, to anyone walking onto campus. They were welcoming to people coming from different states and different countries. The dedication level was sky-high among everyone. That’s impressive. There are a lot of excellent organizations who have outstanding people, but I had never experienced so many people from different walks of life performing different functions who had those qualities of dedication, helpfulness and cheerfulness.
My contact with City of Hope became pretty in-depth as the litigation went on. The first trial ended in a hung jury, and it was the second trial where we were able to obtain the verdict in favor of City of Hope, in 2002. There were post-trial motions, then appeals. The California Supreme Court issued its final ruling in 2008. We were told that the decision was the largest judgment ever upheld on appeal by California courts in any area of law.
America is a big melting pot, and that’s especially true for the world of science and research. Having been raised by parents who were first-generation immigrants, how did your cultural identity affect you as a kid?
Growing up I didn’t think about it very much one way or the other. My mother was one of five children, and she was the only sibling to come to the United States. My father was one of 11, and only he and two of his sisters came to the U.S. I was born in New York City, then our family lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, and then we moved to Garden City, which is in Nassau County. That’s where I grew up, in a New York suburb that was mostly Caucasian. I was always aware I was Chinese, but there was an amalgam of different cultures. My mom was a great cook — she cooked a lot of Chinese food, but she also made wonderful spaghetti and meatballs, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
If there were things that created tension, it was very low-level: Chinese parents then and now want their kids to go to Chinese school to learn culture and language and other things. Of course, growing up and as an adult, there are times that either kids or adults say things to you that are unkind because of race, ethnicity and whatnot. That happens still today.
You didn’t finish high school, yet you went on to earn five degrees: a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. from UCLA, a J.D. from Harvard Law School and an M.S.L. from Yale Law School. What was your journey like as a young man, and how did you ultimately find the path that brought you to where you are today?
We were all teenagers once … I’d gone through a year of high school in the New York area, and then my family moved to Orange County, California. I very much enjoyed high school, sports, friends and a lot of other things, but I didn’t feel that I was learning as much as I would have liked. I’ve always enjoyed learning new things, with any subject, without limitation. Midway through my junior year I started telling people at the school that I was thinking about leaving. At the same time, I’m a teenager, I’m battling with my parents. By the end of the year, I had resolved that I would just leave school and leave home, and I traveled.
Eventually I came back to California, and I applied to UCLA and got rejected. I didn’t meet a lot of their requirements. One was a high school diploma. I made several in-person visits to the admissions office, and finally an older lady said, “Come back in a couple days. I’m not promising anything.” I did go back, and she said, “OK, we’re admitting you.” So that’s how I started college.
Did you know at that time what you wanted to study?
No. Anything and everything was always of interest, then and now. I did sign up to be a math major. But I was taking art history classes and English literature and science classes — any subject under the sun. Everything was fun to me. Still is. That’s one of the reasons why I love what I do. I learn something new about science, technology, engineering literally every week.
It’s the most amazing thing when I get to meet with these brilliant, creative people who are doing cutting-edge work — it could be in biotech or communications, defense systems and radar systems — and they want to teach me the technology. A couple days later I realize I don’t quite understand, and they take the time to answer all my dumb questions. After a few years of this it dawned on me that another amazing aspect of my learning from these brilliant people is that they pay me. If you could design a job or position like that, wouldn’t that be great?
Have you ever been tempted to spend a day in the laboratory learning and doing an experiment?
Sure, but I would really mess it up. I recognize that doing good experiments means being very careful and precise and patient, and being willing to see lots of failures along the way. If I did it for only a day or two days and all I had was failures, I might get the wrong impression.
Graduate students come to City of Hope from many different cultures. What should they know about studying here?
We have the best university system in the world, bar none. It’s not just the Harvards and Yales and M.I.T.s — Iowa State University can be outstanding in certain fields of study. The best and the brightest from throughout the world want to and do come to the United States if they have the opportunity. We’ve been for many decades very hospitable to people from all over the world, and it’s been great for the individual institutions, the students and the United States as a whole because many of those people want to stay. Some become CEOs of major corporations, some lead research efforts for research institutions or take academic positions of leadership. There has been a very positive image of education in the United States for people all over the world, and that includes Asia, but also Africa and Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere.
City of Hope exists with that important background. It’s special because its graduate school is younger, and it has qualities that are difficult to reproduce in other institutions: We have the ability to do research, come up with a new treatment, actually create those treatments in our own pharmaceutical factories with FDA approval, literally walk across the street and, with the approval of the treating physicians and the patients involved, try out these new treatments that are probably a long way from getting FDA approval for the population as a whole. Many great academic institutions don’t have that.
Is there something in particular you think the graduate school should be most proud of?
The people. I’m not subdividing it into students and faculty, just all the people involved with the graduate school. The individual respect that people have for one another at a very high level. That’s not to say that people can’t have different points of view, or that issues may not crop up, but I’ve always had the sense that people here have the same goals and are pulling together, and then when someone needs extra help or stumbles there’s always someone around to pick them up. At a lot of otherwise terrific institutions someone may stumble and people may not notice for months, if ever.
When you and Helen think about the unique culture of intellectual curiosity and compassion that exists here, what do you hope the future of the graduate program looks like?
It’s not just a graduate school, it’s an institution that is expanding the boundaries of research, trying new things, finding new ways to treat diseases and putting them to work as quickly as possible. And I know from the graduate students that that’s special for them.
It also has a very large population of people who come from overseas. There’s a certain richness to that. Sometimes at very large universities their missions as institutions have many different goals that are pointed in different directions. Sure, they’re focused on teaching and research and the dissemination of information, but they care as passionately about their business school as they do their engineering department, and if they have one, their medical school and the care of patients. Here, the students are not one of many faceless students in a large, well-known, prestigious institution, they are individual students. And having three or more faculty members taking a personal interest in you is probably more important to the learning process than anything else.