There were a handful of people gardening at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center’s Earth Day celebration Wednesday, and among them was T’Sai-Ying Cheng.
The 84-year-old Vancouver resident has crafted a local imprint with her Vancouver plant nursery, TC Gardens, and her volunteer work in Legacy Salmon Creek’s rooftop healing garden.
Cheng is the first women ever to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, which she received in 1964, but she said her graduate accomplishments don’t stand out much to her. She said she was so focused on graduate studies in genomics that she didn’t think much about being an educational groundbreaker.
“The research was interesting,” Cheng said.
Cheng did admit that it was hard procuring top-notch research jobs due to her gender, and that she relocated from Brookhaven National Laboratories in New York to the Pacific Northwest because she was offered the opportunity to lead a research project on timber cloning at the Oregon Graduate Institute, which eventually merged with Oregon Health & Science University. She said it was surprising to land a head research position as a woman of color in the 1970s.
“I didn’t have a problem finding a job. There was a job waiting for me,” she said. “I didn’t have a problem getting paid money. The only problem I had at that time is that it is very hard for a woman to get a top position, the right position.”
Cheng now runs her nursery and frequently volunteers at the healing garden. She’s donated many of the plants featured in the garden, said Teresia Hazen, the coordinator for the therapeutic garden program with Legacy.
“It’s like working with human beings, or animals or doing health research,” Cheng said of why she enjoys gardening.
At the last Healthcare Design Expo & Conference, Legacy Salmon Creek’s 6,800-square-foot garden was awarded a top honor for its evidence-based design, which includes benches and a designated quiet area. Studies have shown gardens can help improve quality of life for hospital patients and prevent burnout for nurses who take breaks in the gardens.
“We’ve really been able to make it a place people can relax,” Hazen said. “This garden is for the community.”
Cheng said she likes to visit with people one on one when she’s in the garden. She said the garden makes her feel good, and like it was made for her.
“I’m able to interact with people,” Cheng said. “When I come I talk to the people who are looking at the garden, I talk to them about what garden and plants will help you stay healthy and positive.”
Cheng explained that she’s able to stay so healthy and energetic at her age, in part, because of gardening, which keeps her mind and body active, through trimming and pulling weeds. While Cheng might have made history at Princeton about 55 years ago, she said she is still making an impact and having fun today.
“You can do good things anywhere and everywhere,” Cheng said. “So I’m trying to do my best in Vancouver.”