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‘Life is not going to be the same': Slaying of beloved USC professor leaves colleagues and friends crestfallen

Tjan, 50, was stabbed to death on Nov. 3 inside his 10th floor office in USC’s Seeley G. Mudd Building.

When students enrolled in USC’s daunting neuroscience graduate program needed help cracking a tough project, they all went to Bosco Tjan. 

It didn’t hurt that his advice often came with a free cappuccino.

Mara Mather, a professor of gerontology and psychology at USC, described Tjan as an affable, caring presence on campus. He always found time to aid students and professors despite a breathless schedule. In many ways, she said, Tjan was the center’s heartbeat.

“One of my students, who is now a faculty member, was describing how he would take the time to really explain things to her,” Mather said. “He was someone who made it all work and really helped out so many people.”

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As each former friend and colleague recalled Tjan’s nurturing personality, they all struggled with the same question: How could a professor so beloved by the campus community see his life end at the hands of a student?

Tjan, 50, was stabbed to death inside his 10th-floor office in USC’s Seeley G. Mudd Building about 4:30 p.m. on Friday, according to Los Angeles police and colleagues. He suffered a severe chest wound and died at the scene, officials said.

David Jonathan Brown, a 28-year-old student in Tjan’s introductory lab course, was arrested at the scene, according to the LAPD.

Police have not discussed a motive in the slaying, though an LAPD spokeswoman described the attack as “targeted” on Friday.

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Calls and emails seeking further comment from the LAPD on Saturday were not immediately returned.

Students mourn Bosco Tjan
Dalton Combs, right, and Kate Swift-Spong bring flowers to the office of USC professor Bosco Tjan, who was stabbed to death Friday. A graduate student has been arrested in the slaying, according to the L.A. Police Department. Combs was Tjan's former student.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Tjan’s death sent shock waves through USC, where he had worked for more than 15 years and was considered a cornerstone of the neuroscience graduate program.

The Beijing native was a co-founder of the college’s neuroimaging center, where he served as technical director, but he also led a number of research projects and taught a lab course on functional imaging to graduate students, according to Irving Biederman, director of USC’s Image Understanding Laboratory.

Tjan worked tirelessly, also serving on various committees at the school and often choosing to repair the complex machinery in the imaging center himself, Biederman said.

“It was impossible not to love him once you knew him,” Biederman said. “He was brilliant and incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly generous with his time and support.”

Born in Beijing and raised in Hong Kong, Tjan emigrated to the U.S. with his family as a teenager, according to Zhong-Lin Lu, a longtime friend and former USC colleague who now serves as director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Ohio State University.

He earned his doctorate in computer and information sciences at the University of Minnesota, where he also met his wife in 1997 before joining USC’s staff in 2001, Lu said.

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Tjan was so selfless that Lu would often tease his longtime friend about spending more time aiding others than conducting his own research. 

“Most people these days are focused on their own promotion, their own research,” Lu said. “Bosco was very different.”

Tjan was an expert in vision loss research, and his most recent project focused on aiding people with retinal degeneration, Biederman said. He is survived by his wife and young son.

The killing came on the heels of violent attacks on other college campuses in the last few months. Earlier this week, a student at Ohio State University injured 11 people when he rammed a car into a crowd and then slashed several people with a butcher knife. Investigators are trying to determine whether terrorism was a motive in the attack. 

Tjan’s death also bore an eerie similarity to the June shooting death of UCLA professor William S. Klug. The 39-year-old professor was shot and killed by a former graduate student who had accused Klug of plagiarizing his work, Los Angeles police said. The gunman killed himself after shooting Klug, but the incident prompted a massive LAPD response and caused the Westwood campus to be locked down.

Though several students said they were saddened to hear of Tjan’s death, they did not seem concerned about their safety. Students wearing backpacks could be seen riding bicycles or lazing under canopies on Saturday morning, just a few feet from the building where Tjan died the night before.

Ramiro Mendoza, a sophomore studying aerospace engineering, said USC’s “almost instantaneous” response to the attack put him at ease.

“These things can happen and [they’re] tragedies when they do, but it won’t change the way I feel about the safety of the campus,” he said.

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Casey Powell, a senior environmental studies major, said he was saddened, but not shaken, by the attack.

“It’s just really sad to lose a faculty member,” Powell said. “It’s also said that it was a student ... a member of the Trojan family.”  

Brown enrolled at USC in 2013, and was one of nearly 60 graduate students in Tjan’s course, according to a campus spokesman and Tjan’s faculty Web page. 

Biederman, who knew of Brown through the graduate program, described the student as a soft-spoken introvert who had never shown an aggressive streak.

“If I thought of male students who would be capable of that, he would not be on the list,” Biederman said.

Biederman said some faculty have wondered whether Brown attacked Tjan after receiving a “less than stellar” review from the committee that evaluates graduate students. 

Mather did not know anything about Brown’s review. But she said that as Brown’s advisor, Tjan’s evaluation of the student would have been a key source of information for that committee.

Lu, who last saw Tjan while attending a workshop in Argentina in April, also said the professor told him one of his graduate students was struggling to keep pace in the neuroscience program. Although he did not mention Brown by name, Lu said Tjan described the student as “socially awkward.”

“I didn’t think the person was a violent person,” Lu said. “[Tjan] wasn’t concerned in our conversation. It was more that this person was not performing well.”

Tjan was a “perfectionist,” according to Lu, who said students sometimes became frustrated when Tjan acted as a taskmaster, even though he was more than willing to help with difficult projects.

Whatever the motive behind Tjan’s slaying, friends and colleagues agreed that his sudden death has created a hole in the USC community that may be impossible to fill.

“It made going to campus a treat, that I might run into him,” Biederman said. “I’m devastated. Life is not going to be the same.”

james.queally@latimes.com

amina.khan@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California. Follow @aminawrite for science news.

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