Varun Soni addressing a crowd of people at USC

Varun Soni, USC dean of religious life, leads a time of prayer and reflection for slain USC Professor Bosco Tjan.(USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)


Bosco Tjan remembered for his brilliance and compassion

The Trojan Family pays tribute to one of its own, a professor noted for going out of his way to help others

December 05, 2016 Joanna Clay

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When Helga Mazyar needed help on her neuroscience research, her adviser Bosco Tjan was there for her.

He was there for her two months ago when her car broke down, offering names of mechanics and tips on how to follow up.

Bosco Tjan
Bosco Tjan was co-director of the USC Dornsife College’s Cognitive Neuroimaging Center. (Photo/Peter Zhaoyu Zhou)

He was there when she was having visa issues while traveling back to the U.S., calling the embassy and USC officials and following up on her research over video chats.

“Helping people in any possible way was his nature,” she said at a memorial for Tjan on Monday at USC’s University Park Campus. “This leaves a hole in my heart and my life.”

Tjan, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Center at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was killed Friday in the building where he worked on campus.

On Monday, more than 200 people gathered from the USC community to hear the remarks of Mazyar, university President C. L. Max Nikias and others remembering Tjan, who was known for his pioneering research in visual cognition and perception. Dozens stood in line to sign memorial books that will be given to his family: Tjan is survived by his wife and son.

Emotional day

It was an emotional day for Xiaofei Yang, a postdoctoral student who knew Tjan for 10 years.

“It still doesn’t seem real,” she said.

She remembers Tjan as an uplifting and funny guy, someone she’d run into grabbing espresso. She remembered a recent day: As a nursing mother, she told him she was trying to have less caffeine, but he joked she was just preparing the baby for a future love of coffee.

She said she couldn’t imagine any ill will toward him.

“It’s just hard to process how anyone would want to hurt him,” she said.

Tjan, at USC since 2001, was known for his expertise in vision — particularly in how the brain recognizes shapes and scenes. He had recently received a $4 million grant with a team of researchers from the National Institutes of Health to look at how blindness changes the brain. Four years ago, Tjan and colleagues published a study revealing how humans recognize facial features.

“About half of the human brain is almost exclusively dedicated to vision and Bosco was a major contributor to vision science,” said his close friend and colleague Irving Biederman. “Everything he published was a paragon of beautiful design and rigorous methodology.”

Worldwide renown

Biederman, Harold Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience and director of the Image Understanding Laboratory, remembers Tjan being a man without ego, who was gentle with his advice. For this reason, he was invited to conferences around the world, he said.

“It comes as no surprise that since Friday I’ve been swamped with emails and texts from all over the world, mourning this loss,” Biederman said, who knew Tjan for decades.

Tjan was a devout Catholic and shared the name of a Catholic saint — John Bosco — who was similarly known for his support of young people and students, according to the Rev. Richard Sunwoo of the USC Caruso Catholic Center.

Said Nikias: “Bosco died doing what he loved, doing what he believed in — serving his students and building up a new generation of scholars … The presence of the women and men gathered here today testifies to that impact.”