Janet Hsieh enrolled at medical school in her home state of Texas after graduating from MIT, but a phone call from Taiwan changed her life forever: instead of becoming a doctor, she became a travel television personality. Today she’s watched by 600 million viewers across Asia. When she gives talks on college campuses, students ask how she could leave med school. She tells them at MIT she learned never to miss a chance to try something new, such as taking an IAP course in palm reading. “I didn’t dread anything. Well, okay, maybe organic chemistry,” says Hsieh, who majored in humanities and science.
At MIT she rowed, joined Alpha Chi Omega, ran the Boston Marathon, and became an EMT. After graduation she tapped MIT programs to do social-service work in rural India and then made her first trip to Taiwan, where she completed a six-month internship at Taipei Veterans General Hospital. Just before starting med school at the University of Texas, San Antonio, Hsieh acted in a television commercial. She made an impression because she spoke fluent Taiwanese, a language she had learned from her grandmother, who lived with the family. Her phone in San Antonio began ringing with offers of television and movie roles in Taipei. She took the chance and hasn’t looked back—except for the time she retook the MCATs just to make sure she could still do it.
Now based in Taipei, where she’s working on her 13th season of Discovery Travel and Living Channel’s Fun Taiwan and Fun Asia, Hsieh also hosts Fun Taiwan Challenge, patterned on Survivor. Next she’s aiming for more acting gigs—in Mandarin. “I still have an accent,” she admits.
Though she played the violin as a kid, once performing at the White House for President George H. W. Bush, Hsieh put the instrument aside for years. In March, however, she debuted a violin concerto, based on the work of the late, legendary Taiwanese singer-songwriter Chang Yu-Sheng, at Taipei National Concert Hall. This performance struck more fear and excitement in her heart than any desert-island survival test.
Her brass rat means even more to her than it does to the average alum, as she served on the Ring Committee. She selected a multi-petaled flower to represent classmates who had passed away, including her suitemate Kevin Chao, who died in a car accident in 1998. “He was a physics major who was also on the crew team,” Hsieh says. “He taught me how to study really hard and play harder.”