Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Alumni Profile: Dominic Man-Kit Lam

How Lakehead shaped an international innovator in science and art

Berton Woodward
Published July 29, 2015

There are a lot of what-ifs in the story of Lakehead's first international student, Dominic Man-Kit Lam (BSc Hons'67), and how he became a global success in science, art, business, and philanthropy.

What if he hadn't run into the Nobel Laureate on the back stairs at Harvard? What if he hadn't been playing with some malfunctioning chemicals in a photo lab one evening? And most importantly, what if, as a new student from Hong Kong, he hadn't met Donald Ayre in Montreal, just as Ayre was leaving to take up a job as registrar of Lakehead?

"My life would have been completely different," agrees Dominic.

The way it turned out, he went on to become a leading expert on the human eye and to invent a groundbreaking procedure for preventing secondary cataracts that made him financially independent. At the same time, Dominic's artistic sensibility led him to create a new art form, known as Chromoskedasic Painting, and he has held exhibitions as an artist all over the world, with pieces selling for up to US$1 million. He has received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Merit, and counts former president George H.W. Bush among his friends.

black and white school photo
After receiving his HBSc from Lakehead in just three years, Dominic went on to earn degrees from the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, and a faculty position at Harvard Medical School in record-breaking times.

Devoted now to art and philanthropy, Dominic created the World Eye Organization, a self-funded charity that is building eye treatment centres all over China and aims to go global. Yet he still stays on the cutting edge of science by pushing forward with what could be a huge boon for the 21st century: edible vaccines for animals and humans.

"This is what education at a university like Lakehead gives you – you learn to take calculated risks."
– Dominic Man-Kit Lam

And all of this began with Lakehead, where his undergraduate years shaped him into the truly exceptional and unconventional individual he has become. Or, as Dominic offers with a laugh, "fearless and sometimes reckless."

Dominic is the kind of person who makes an instant and deep impression on people, particularly highly-educated people. "Brilliant" is the word they usually use. That showed early on when the China-born, Hong Kong-raised teenager talked his way into a top-notch Jesuit school in Hong Kong during a meeting with the vice-principal, Fr. A. Deignan. This in turn led to a scholarship to Montreal's Jesuit-run Loyola University, where Dominic arrived in September 1964 at the age of 16.

Dominic, who calls himself "an impatient person," always seemed to be in a hurry. In his first week in Canada, he discovered that you could do your undergraduate degree in three years in Ontario, unlike the four needed in Quebec. So he met with Ayre, just finishing as registrar at Loyola, and Ayre – impressed – accepted him at Lakehead. Dominic jumped on a train for Port Arthur and, within two weeks of landing in Canada, was ensconced at Mrs. Robinson's boarding house and had a new Fort William City scholarship.

"I had a really wonderful education at Lakehead," Dominic says. "I chose math as a major, because if I took liberal arts, I would have had to write essays and read a lot of books. Science would have meant many hours of lab work. Math is basically logic, and if you know it, it doesn't take much study." The calculating student still had to take English, though, and he fondly remembers learning Chaucer and the classics from the late John Rideout, chair of the English department and a Rhodes Scholar.

George H.W. Bush shaking hands with Dominic
Dominic's contributions to science, medicine, art, philanthropy and business, earned him the admiration of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who invited Dominic to be a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 1988 and to have a one-man show in 2003 at the George Bush Library and Museum.

Mathematics Professor Emeritus John Whitfield recalls Dominic as "quite an academic force. He stood out in all his classes. Anyone who met him was impressed with his scholarship." But it was his math instructor, now Professor Emeritus William Eames, and his physics professor, the late David Frood, who would prove instrumental in setting him on his path. "It's quite important in your formative years to have great teachers like these," says Dominic. Eames was a highly supportive presence in math, while Frood, he says, "was the inspiration for me to go into physics."

During his nearly three years in Port Arthur, the man in a hurry managed to: 1) hold down two jobs – at Canada Post sorting mail during the week and at a Chinese restaurant on weekends; 2) become a table tennis star, starting on campus and ending up as Ontario university singles champion – Professor Emeritus George Ozburn describes watching Dominic play "like watching the Olympic competitions – really spectacular;" 3) join the Lakehead basketball team, and 4) play guitar and sing in jam sessions in local bars for pocket money. Oh yes, and 5) study, giving him the first-class marks to enter the University of British Columbia for his MSc in theoretical physics, as Frood had urged.

"You got to know everybody at Lakehead and these were some of the most joyful years of my life," says Dominic. "It really shaped my future."

The following May, he was back at Lakehead to teach a summer course in physics, having completed his MSc in eight months. Then it was off to the University of Toronto, where, fascinated by genetics and the contributions physics could make to medicine, he polished off a PhD in medical biophysics in a little over a year, getting a waiver to do so. At just 22, he was Dr. Lam.

"I sized him up pretty quickly. He is obviously a very brilliant person."
- Torsten Wiesel, Nobel Laureate

Where next? Backed by a prestigious federal Centennial Award, he had a list of top universities to visit about doing a post-doc and chose Harvard Medical School as his first stop. But at Harvard he was devastated to learn that the world-leading visual scientists he was there to meet, Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel, had not yet come back from a trip. Expecting to move on to Cambridge or Cal Tech, Dominic was walking down the stairs when he ran into just-returned Wiesel coming up. The two went out for dinner, Wiesel was impressed, and a mentorship was born.

"I sized him up pretty quickly. He is obviously a very brilliant person," says Wiesel, who with Canadian-born Hubel won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981 for breakthroughs in visual information processing. Now 90 and president emeritus of Rockefeller University, Wiesel is still in regular touch with Dominic and often visited China with him. "He has a way of engaging himself in things and engaging other people in his interests and passions," says Wiesel. "He is one of the most dynamic and friendly people you could meet. He is constantly on the move, in science and in art."

Dominic in standing front of an ORBIS airplane
Dominic's charity, the World Eye Organization, is giving people back their vision and their independence by preventing and treating eye diseases in poor and isolated regions. Dominic has also been involved with the "Flying Eye Hospital" known as Project Orbis since 1980. This photo was taken in Guangzhou at the 30th anniversary of Orbis in China in 2012.

Although Dominic had been doing Chinese painting since he was six, his parents opposed any thought of him taking up brush strokes for a living. "If I could not be a visual artist," he often says, "I decided I would be a visual scientist." Under Wiesel and Hubel at Harvard, Dominic reached that goal, becoming a neuroscientist specializing in vision and joining the Harvard faculty at age 24. But it wasn't long before he was head-hunted as a professor of ophthalmology by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

"I feel very blessed that I have been able to use the commercial value of my visual art and the expertise of my visual science to help the visually impaired."
- Dominic Man-Kit Lam

There Dominic invented a drug against secondary cataract, helped create a cluster of private and academic research centres, took his own company public, and became lionized as "the father of Texas biotechnology." By 1988, he was financially independent and ready to pursue his other dreams.

Lakehead University's 50 year anniversary logo

50th Anniversary Memories

Dominic Man-Kit Lam received an honorary Doctor of Science degree at Lakehead's 2015 Convocation. We asked him four questions about his experience at the University.

What was your favourite song while you were at Lakehead?

"Windmills of your Mind" by Noel Harrison. It was so romantic yet so philosophical. Even mathematical – "Round, like a circle in a spiral…"

Was there a particular course or professor that made a difference for you?

Professor William Eames in Mathematics. He gave me a lot of confidence. I chose math because it was easy for me, but it turned out that math is also the queen of sciences and the basis of logical thinking.

What is your most vivid Lakehead University memory?

One of them is riding the train from Montreal for 24 hours to get to Lakehead. The registrar, Donald Ayre, met me at the station. This was very touching to me. I didn't know where to go or where to stay. He helped me get settled.

What are your thoughts on Lakehead's 50th Anniversary?

I'm very excited to be part of this event, and most appreciative and grateful to the faculty for honouring me. I'm also very impressed that the medical school spends a lot of time training students to work in rural areas and among Aboriginal people. In China, too, it is very difficult to get doctors to work outside the cities. Lakehead is setting an excellent example for the rest of the world.

As part of his research at Baylor, Dominic took black and white photographs of the eye. On that what-if night in the darkroom in 1980, he failed to mix the photo solutions and found colours suddenly appearing on the paper. "I got excited, and very curious," he says. It later took him and Kodak's B. Rossiter an entire article in Scientific American (November, 1991) to explain exactly how this phenomenon occurs, but Dominic turned it into an art form – dubbed Chromoskedasic Painting, meaning "light scattering" – that can produce giant, vividly colourful images. Two samples of his paintings now hang in China's famed Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where many visiting heads of state stay in Beijing.

At Baylor, too, Dominic worked with David Paton, chair of ophthalmology and founder of the renowned Project Orbis, in which a fully equipped airplane, the "Flying Eye Hospital," travels the world helping eye patients. Dominic, who got Paton to visit China, was inspired by his example. In 1999, when he moved back to Hong Kong, Dominic established his own charity. The World Eye Organization now runs nine eye hospitals treating rural people across China, with more planned. Dominic channels the income from his paintings, as well as other sources, to the organization. "I feel very blessed that I have been able to use the commercial value of my visual art and the expertise of my visual science to help the visually impaired," he says. "It's like a trinity of bliss."

And there is more to come. Some 20 years ago, Dominic published his first journal article on the feasibility of edible vaccines, then conceived as being incorporated genetically into fruits and vegetables, to target animal and human diseases, from influenza to hepatitis B. This novel production and delivery method would be safe and far more efficient than costly and cumbersome injections, especially in developing countries. Even his two children – son Fong, now a pediatrics professor at Baylor, and daughter Yee, now a lawyer in Los Angeles – got involved in the research during high school. The patented idea was hailed by Time magazine in 2001 as one of the most important inventions for the new century.

group photo
Dominic and his children Yee (l) and Fong (r) at a Christmas party in 2014. They have their father's energy and drive and they have become accomplished professionals in their respective fields of law and pediatrics.
"You know, to be truly exceptional and unconventional, you actually have to be bold because with most major discoveries, people might laugh at you for 20 years."
- Dominic Man-Kit Lam

Recently, amid the controversy over genetically modified organisms, Dominic and his colleagues have turned to vaccines embedded in lactobacteria and contained in rice-sized pellets, mixed with animal feed, as the delivery method. This year, he received the first patent on the technology from Chinese authorities, who he hopes will soon approve its use against avian flu in chickens. "Animals will be much faster," he says, "but we are targeting five to ten years for making a health-food hepatitis B preventative for humans, maybe in tomato juice."

Dominic observes that in science, "asking the right question is often the key to a breakthrough." Lakehead's belief in teaching people how to think, not what to think, resonates deeply with him.

"You know, to be truly exceptional and unconventional, you actually have to be bold," he says. "Because with most major discoveries, people might laugh at you for 20 years. So you have to be brave and not worry about what people think. This is what education at a university like Lakehead gives you – you learn to take calculated risks. You know it's exceptional, you know it's unconventional, but you figure that the odds are on your side."

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