Outside all the boxes

June 1, 2020
Assistant Professor Christina Woo

How Christina Woo’s mobile childhood helped her earn the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar award

 

By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy

 

 

As a child, Christina Woo moved around a lot. Her father’s job shifted the family from town to town and Woo from school to school. She was a permanent new kid.

That nomad lifestyle didn’t seem like a hardship at the time, Woo said. Later, after hearing how other people spent steady childhoods at one school with the same teachers and the same students, she realized her outsider status created a distance between her and her educators. Of course, it wasn’t all bad: She had her books; she studied hard. She graduated with a B.A. from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. from Yale University.

Now, as a junior faculty member at Harvard, Woo exhibits a talent not just for research but for teaching, showing a special affinity for mentoring those who, like her, might feel like outsiders. “I understand what it's like to be the new person in a room,” Woo said. “what it's like to not fit in.” Now, she sees that status as a gift, one that gives her an affinity for reaching a broader range of students. This year, she earned national recognition for her uncanny ability to mentor students: She is one of just 14 faculty across the United States to earn the title Camille-Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, an honor given to young chemists who excel in the lab and classroom.

“It was one of those really crappy days in Boston,” Woo said. “It was raining really bad outside, and I was feeling really unhappy because I was stuck at home.” When she saw the Camille Dreyfus Foundation pop up in her inbox, she felt the same adrenaline rush she gets when she teaches a course's first lectures or gets a good research result. 

Currently, 40 percent of Woo’s lab identifies as underrepresented minorities in the sciences. Some may still feel like misfits, but Woo hopes her outreach efforts—from training opportunities for underrepresented high school teachers to hosting undergraduates from often overlooked schools—will fill up the so-called STEM pipeline with young scientists of every conceivable background.

 

A group photo of Woo lab members on a lab outing: They're posing in front of a wooden cabin and holding paintballs
A group photo on a Woo lab outing a few years after she joined Harvard University. Woo is standing behind the wooden bear statue. David Miyamoto Photo courtesy of the Woo lab

 

Woo also earned the Teacher-Scholar title for her “outstanding independent body of scholarship” and a deep commitment to undergraduate education. In the last year, she shifted her research focus from a more traditional form of drug discovery—searching for small molecules that can inhibit certain proteins and treat disease-causing malfunctions—to a riskier but potentially far more rewarding direction: designing new small molecules, called chemical adaptors, that can give proteins new functions.

“The reason why this type of approach is potentially really powerful is that if you look at the druggable proteome from last century, you can only hit about 15 to 20 percent of proteins,” Woo said. The rest are unreachable (or as chemists say, “undruggable”). Now, the lab is poised to discover novel routes to new therapeutics that could address previously untreatable diseases.

Woo always dreamt of integrating her lab’s research into her undergraduate curriculum. Recently, she accomplished that goal, structuring a lab-based class around questions she was asking her graduate students, questions that didn’t have answers yet. “It's the undergraduates’ first taste of hypothesis-driven research, which is quite frankly the kind of course that drew me into chemistry,” Woo said.

“What I think is challenging for undergraduates today,” she continued, “is learning how to fail and being averse to failure. In hypothesis-driven research, failure is just part of what happens.”

Open questions are the nature of research, said David Miyamoto, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Woo lab. Miyamoto has been a Teaching Fellow or Head Teaching Fellow for several of Woo’s courses, including organic chemistry, the classic pre-med hurdle. “So many of the students find it difficult because they just try and brute force their way through the class by memorizing everything,” he said. “But, I think these more hypothesis-driven types of questions would really help them to understand the basic principles that they're learning.”

Miyamoto said Woo uses a similar approach with her graduate students. She throws out hypotheses for them to chew on, test, pursue, or discard. And she’s always there as a safety net: She meets one-on-one with anyone for any reason. When Miyamoto first joined the lab, he wasn’t sure how to assign an NMR spectrum, a relatively basic activity for a chemist, he said. But Woo sat down with him anyway and taught him her method. After three years in the lab, he no longer needs the same hands-on support. That, Miyamoto said, is probably part of Woo’s plan: Provide a strong foundation and then slowly encourage more and more independence.

Hope Flaxman, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and one of the first Woo lab members, said that when Woo mentors her Teaching Fellows, she achieves an ideal balance between support and freedom, giving them structured guidance but also space to tackle problems alone.

Until she joined Harvard, Woo saw teaching and research as separate, though equally important. “Actually,” she said, “they're more similar than I had originally thought. Part of what I do as a researcher leading the lab is always teaching and always learning.”