Inspiring and Supporting Biotech Education
Sherry Tsai’s scientific path began in high school with her chemistry teacher, Cassandra Whitsett. “Not only did she do a fantastic job teaching me the subject of chemistry, she made it incredibly interesting, relevant, and fun to learn,” Tsai says. “She was also just a great person who taught me a lot generally speaking. I used to spend hours in her classroom most days after school asking her questions, and she did her best to answer all of them.”
Tsai would go on to major in chemistry as an undergraduate at Yale and ultimately received a PhD in bio-organic chemistry from Caltech. Now director of the ABE Greater Los Angeles Area (ABE-LA) program, she has been instrumental in its growth over the past 7 years, helping to bring hands-on science to tens of thousands of high school students every year.
We caught up with Tsai to learn more about her career path and her impactful work with ABE-LA.
Tell us more about your early science education.
I don't remember liking my science classes very much until I took Miss Whitsett's chemistry class in my sophomore year of high school. I think my first formal science class was "Science" in 8th grade. I thought the topic was interesting, but I didn't like the teacher very much. In 9th grade, I took biology, but I don't think he was a very good teacher. I'm sure we learned some science in elementary school, but I don't remember enjoying it. I also don't remember ever going to or having field trips to places like science museums. However, it was always made very clear in my house growing up that science is a very important subject to learn. So, I valued the idea of science and was eager to learn chemistry after hearing about the class from my older brother.
What led you from chemistry to biotechnology after your educational path?
When I got to college, I found I was very well prepared in chemistry because of Miss Whitsett, and I continued to enjoy the subject, and that's a large part of why I ended up majoring in chemistry in college. By the end of graduate school, I realized that majoring in and applying to graduate school in a life science field would have been a better fit for me. I realized too late that the aspects of chemistry I found the most fascinating were actually the ways it applied to living things, which is what I focused my graduate work on. If I had had better biology teachers and biology classes in high school, I might have majored in biology or biochemistry instead.
How did you first become involved with the ABE program?
I first became involved with the ABE program in 2009 through my work coordinating a Career Technical Education workforce development grant at Pasadena City College. As part of the grant, I worked with Dr. Wendie Johnston and the rest of the ABE-LA Pasadena distribution center (then called the Amgen-Bruce Wallace Biotechnology Lab Program) to run free "Biotech Boot Camps" for local high school students each summer. The curriculum of these annual camps was the ABE labs. For another piece of the grant, I developed and ran a "kit"-lending program for local science teachers to teach a hands-on water-quality curriculum. I modeled this program after the ABE program, and they were generous enough to meet with me and talk me through all the logistical details of how ABE's kit-lending works. Then in December 2012, the ABE director at the time, Marty Ikkanda, called to tell me he was retiring and asked me if I'd like to take over his job. By that time, I was very familiar with ABE and knew what a great program it was, and so I jumped at the opportunity!
What is the reach of the ABE-LA program?
I haven't finalized this year's numbers yet, especially with the ongoing pandemic, but last year, we had 27,400 students participate in ABE through 254 teachers at 163 schools.
What has been the most memorable and/or fulfilling part of your role with ABE?
I think the most fulfilling times in my work are when I get to interact directly with teachers and, less frequently, students, and to hear directly from them the impact of ABE. I love when teachers come up to me after a professional development institute (PDI) or teacher appreciation event and tell me how much they enjoyed it, learned from it, were inspired by it, etc. Or when I get to talk to a student who has done the ABE labs recently, and they tell me they thought it was the best part of their class that year.
What have been the biggest challenges with growing the ABE-LA program?
The ABE-LA program has grown pretty significantly in a variety of ways since I took over the position in July 2013. Just in terms of the numbers, last year we served 18% more students, 8% more teachers, and 18% more schools since my first year. As a result of this growth, and also as a result of other external factors, our site has experienced a lot of changes over the last 7 years. Leading my team through these numerous transitions as the program has grown and changed has been the biggest challenge.
How is the program holding up during the pandemic?
I think the program has been doing pretty well, all things considered. Most of our local schools closed at about the same time, and we shut down our kit-lending program at that time. The uncertainties surrounding when it will be safe to hold PDIs [professional development institutes] and what schools/high school biology classrooms will look like in the fall makes planning for the future extremely challenging, but I think we're flexible and creative enough to handle upcoming changes. The team is so spread out geographically that we're used to working remotely from each other, which makes that transition relatively easy for us.
What has been your proudest moment?
I can't think of one particular moment, but each time I attend one of the all-ABE site meetings hosted by the Program Office, I look around and feel extremely proud to be part of this amazing, talented, global community of people doing this great work.
Anything else you'd like to add that I haven't asked you about?
Just that it has been a privilege to have led the ABE-LA site the last 7 years. The ABE-LA team members (past and current) are the most dedicated, hard-working, and all-around fantastic people, and I've been very lucky to have worked with them. It has really been because of them that the ABE-LA site has been so successful.