Cha Chien, who was born in 1896, was the first Chinese student to earn a doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He received a bachelor of arts in literature from Jinling University in Nanjing in 1919 and then enrolled at the University of Minnesota where he earned a masters of science in mathematics by 1921. The anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement prompted him to further his education in physics instead of politics, as he had hoped. He earned a Ph.D. in physics in 1923.
Upon returning to China in 1923, Cha worked as a professor at National Southeastern University (later renamed Nanjing University). Wanting to develop a more substantial department of physics for undergraduates, Cha wrote a letter to University of Minnesota physics Professor H.A. Erikson seeking advice.
In 1932 he moved to Wuhan University to serve as a faculty member and head the department of physics. He led efforts to establish the Central China Institute of Technology (later renamed Central China University of Science and Technology) and served as its first president for 22 years. As a well-respected educator, he proposed “Science for China,” with the thinking that understanding the natural sciences is crucial for a country’s development.