In memoriam: Bosco Tjan remembered for passion for his work

The last time Michelle Greene saw Bosco Tjan, he couldn’t wait to show her a new data set at the vision research conference they were both attending. Greene, a USC alumna who studied under Tjan as an undergraduate student and now works as a research scientist at Stanford University, said that in this moment, his passion for his work was clear.

“He was always a great kinetic, positive presence at the conference,” Greene said. “He would come up to you with a great, big smile and had this infectious enthusiasm.”

Tjan, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was found dead in his office at USC after being fatally stabbed on Dec. 2. He was 50.

On Monday, students, faculty, staff and members of the public gathered in Hahn Plaza to celebrate Tjan’s life and grieve his loss, which has affected current members of the USC community as well as the larger Trojan Family.

“Bosco died doing what he loved, doing what he believed in — serving his students and building up a new generation of scholars,” President C. L. Max Nikias said at the memorial ceremony. “The presence of the women and men gathered here today testifies to that impact.”

Tjan came to the University in 2001 after receiving a doctorate in computer science from the University of Minnesota. He started as an assistant professor before being named an associate professor in 2008, and finally a full professor in 2014. He was an expert in vision research and described his work as using “behavioral, computational, and neural imaging techniques to address basic and translational questions pertaining to vision loss, restoration, and rehabilitation.

Greene said that his personal qualities made him stand out among her instructors, even prompting her to take his graduate-level courses.

“Artists imitate masters, and he was definitely that mold that I wanted to fit myself to,” Greene said. “His blend of rigor and humor had a way of bringing out the best of you.”

Tjan was born in Beijing but grew up in Hong Kong, where he got his start working in the hardware field and specializing in computer monitors. Greene described him as a “profoundly curious person” who devoted his time to helping students develop their own research and skills at USC.

“He was great at mentoring [and] generous with his time,” Greene said. “He took his job as a mentor very seriously, and would talk to you for as long as you needed to talk, even to the exclusion of things he needed to get done.”

This mentorship, Greene said, helped students grow and develop during their time at USC, thanks to Tjan’s willingness to help turn around what might start out as an “objectively terrible idea.”

“If you’re pitching an idea to him, he’d listen, and he’d find that one nugget of something salvageable and lead you in conversation to something workable,” Greene said. “He’d never say ‘you’re wrong, do it this way’ — and by the end of it, you thought it was your idea, even though it was very much the idea that he planted as a seed in your head.”

In a letter to students on Dec. 3, Provost Michael Quick described Tjan as a “true teacher and mentor,” and praised the intellectual discoveries he made while at USC as well as his giving personality. Quick recounted his early memories of working with Tjan in the neuroscience imaging field, where together they urged students to learn outside the classroom.

“Professor Tjan … represented the very best in our faculty,” Quick wrote. “He was, first and foremost, brilliant, but he will equally be remembered as an insightful and generous colleague, an outstanding teacher, a prolific researcher and an exceptional collaborator across the university and at other institutions.”

Tjan is survived by his wife and son.

The USC psychology department started a GoFundMe initiative to raise money for Tjan’s family, which, as of Thursday afternoon, had raised $85,831 of its $125,000 goal. The funds will go to help cover the his son’s future higher education costs.