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05/27/2016 12:37 pm ET Updated May 27, 2016

A Harvard Grad's Mom Once Lit His Hand On Fire. Here's What He Learned From That.

That event 15 years ago helped inspire his career goals.

The first Chinese citizen to deliver a graduation speech at Harvard University wants to know why his mother only knew to light his hand on fire when a poisonous spider bit him. Why wasn't she able to use "less painful, and less risky treatments" that already existed?

Jiang He, who grew up in a rural village in southern China’s Hunan Province, just received his Ph.D in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard. He explained in his Harvard commencement speech this week that his mom put a chopstick in his mouth, wrapped his hand in wine-soaked cotton, and set it on fire after the spider bit him 15 years ago. It was painful, but the flame actually deactivated proteins in the venom, Jiang said. 

"I'm happy to report that my hand is fine," he said in his speech Wednesday, but he added, "I'll continue to be troubled by the unequal distribution of scientific knowledge throughout the world." Society has unlocked the human genome, but "we haven't been so successful in deploying [knowledge] to where it is needed most."

Jiang appreciated the value of innovation, but he believes there should be more emphasis on distributing the knowledge to those who need it.

"Changing the world doesn't mean everyone has to find the next big thing -- it can be as simple as becoming better communicators and fighting more creative ways to pass on the knowledge," he said. 

Quartz noted that China’s state media outlets have bragged that Jiang was "making history" by delivering his speech. The graduate told SixthTone.com that people in his native village were spreading news of his  speech on WeChat ahead of the commencement, which shows how technology can help improve the lives of people in rural, remote areas. 

Society must recognize that the equal distribution of knowledge is a pivotal step of human development and we should work to bring this into reality, Jiang said. "And if we do that," he said, "then perhaps a teenager in rural China who is bitten by a poisonous spider will no longer have to burn his hand, but will know to seek a doctor instead."

Watch Jiang He's speech in the video above.

 

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