Pearl Lam Bergad (M.S. ’69) has some advice for the nearly 90 freshmen who joined the College of Biological Sciences’ new Bergad Guild this fall: be receptive to new things.
“Be open to new ideas, or whatever may come your way; if something strikes you as interesting, follow your nose and find out more,” she says.
That piece of wisdom comes from a woman whose career is a lesson in being open and interested in exploring new things. She had a 30-year career at the University of Minnesota as a well-respected research molecular biologist and is now the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Chinese Heritage Foundation, where Bergad—an accomplished pianist—has made music a centerpiece in her efforts to promote and preserve Chinese culture among all Minnesotans and cultivate a world where people from all cultures can live in peace.
Bergad came from Hong Kong to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in 1962 and studied botany under the late Dr. Douglas Pratt. When Pratt joined the faculty in the Department of Botany at the University of Minnesota in 1966, Bergad enrolled as a graduate student in the department and continued her research under his tutelage. After receiving a master’s degree in biology from the U in 1969, she spent the next three decades working in research in the Medical School, first in the Department of Ophthalmology and then the Department of Pediatrics, where she was instrumental in elucidating the growth hormone response element in rat liver.
After retiring from the U, Bergad moved her work from science to the arts. Her first major project was conceiving and overseeing, Hún Qiáo [Bridge of Souls], the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota’s 2001 concert of remembrance and reconciliation for the Asian tragedies of World War II. For that, she was recognized in 2002 by President George W. Bush, who lauded her commitment to the arts and multiculturalism. In 2003, she received the University’s Outstanding Achievement Award for her work as a researcher and mentor to students in the University’s Medical School, as well as her efforts at promoting communication and understanding among people of different cultures. In 2016, Bergad’s work in initiating an operatic adaptation of the epic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber came to fruition on the stage of the San Francisco Opera. The opera received worldwide acclaim and was performed in Hong Kong, Beijing, Changsha and Wuhan, and will be revived in San Francisco in 2022. In June 2021, she received a Distinguished Achievement Award from Carleton College.
Bergad describes herself as having a dual personality: at once a biologist and a musician. But working in biological research or the arts requires the same inquiry skills, she says. “Whether I am exploring a scientific hypothesis or creating a cultural event, the process is the same.” She thanks Pratt for that.
“He taught me how to become a good researcher. That was the biggest gift I received from Douglas Pratt,” she says. That’s something she hopes the students in the Bergad Guild will also learn: how to follow the scientific process and use those skills in all areas of their lives.
The symbol for the new Bergad Guild features an Erlenmeyer flask filled with musical notes to represent her distinguished careers in both the sciences and the arts. Bergad says she was surprised and flattered to learn that she has now joined seven other CBS luminaries honored for their impact to the field of biology and the college. “It’s a great honor,” she says. — Kristal Leebrick