Breaching barriers: Theresa Ho encourages science in underserved populations, advances DEI

For Theresa “T” Ho, the best part of conducting scientific research is the commitment and creativity that goes into it.

Ho, PhD, an associate research scientist in the laboratory of Craig Ellermeier, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, says she loves making connections that may have never been made before.

Theresa “T” Ho, PhD, associate research scientist in the laboratory of Craig Ellermeier, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology

“In research, I absolutely love that sense of discovery,” says Ho, who also serves as a lecturer in the Carver College of Medicine. “When you learn something that nobody else knows, it’s really powerful. In the same way, I love to watch students have that ‘aha’ moment of problem-solving, when they say, ‘That was really hard, and now it’s not so hard anymore.’”

When she’s not engaged in her own research on different kinds of bacterial pathogens and how they resist stresses from the environment, Ho inspires a similar passion for discovery in her medical and undergraduate students—as well as local elementary and secondary students. 

Ho says she loves to see younger students in the community make scientific connections and gain an affinity for the subject. 

“There’s something really powerful about watching someone so unjaded learn something that they don’t know is hard—they don’t have any predisposed prejudices against science or math, they can just learn,” she says. “Elementary kids are so open to learning new things. They’re so curious and so excited, and it’s just so much fun.” 

Bringing STEM to the community 

To increase accessibility to science in local schools, Ho began a program that connects undergraduate and graduate students in the Carver College of Medicine with elementary, middle, and high school students of color from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who have often never met a microbiologist or thought of microbiology as a career. 

Though she has seen how some kids are encouraged to pursue science in the classroom, Ho says not all schools are so supportive of the subject. 

“That’s not the case for every school, and that’s not the case for every child,” she says. “And there are definitely barriers for some kids that shouldn’t be there, so I’ve tried to breach those barriers in different ways.” 

Additionally, Ho began a partnership with local nonprofit organization Open Heartland, which serves mobile home parks in the Iowa City Community School District area, so she and her students can bring STEM activities to the children there. 

It is increasingly important to encourage science among students as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Ho says. In an effort to respond to peoples’ concerns about the coronavirus, she and many of her colleagues have partnered with community organizations to answer questions about it in an honest, simple, and understandable way, Ho says. 

“Science is often really misunderstood,” she says. “I think part of that is as scientists, by nature, we’re introverts.  And I think that’s unfortunate because it’s really important for people to know where their science comes from, and how it gets there. And so, we push that a lot for the elementary kids.” 

Her goal is for elementary-age students to feel comfortable learning new concepts, Ho says. 

“We like to be sneaky, and don’t use the word ‘science,’” she says. “We just do some fun stuff and, if they happen to learn some science along the way, that’s phenomenal.”

The middle and high school programs are more tailored to providing students with career advice and a sense of what scientists do, Ho says. Science is a broad category, she adds, and young people often think the only route available to them within it is to become a physician or nurse. 

Theresa “T” Ho, PhD, associate research scientist in the laboratory of Craig Ellermeier, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology

“That’s what lots of people do, but also lots of people don’t do that,” she says. “My research is so different every single day, and that’s what’s awesome about it. So, it’s about having conversations with people and building relationships with them. It’s about me learning what they like, talking to them about what they think, having them trust me a little bit, and then telling them what I do.” 

Recognized for her contributions to DEI 

Ho recently became one of two recipients of the University of Iowa’s inaugural Staff Award for Distinguished Leadership in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in 2021. 

Her first reaction to receiving the award was embarrassment, Ho says, because she believes there are so many people who are equally deserving. 

“I feel like it’s encouragement for me,” she says. “I’m going to try and work to deserve that.” 

Ho received the award not just because of her outreach to the Iowa City community but her pivotal role as a member of the UI Department of Microbiology and Immunology diversity, equity, and inclusion committee.  

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is important in her department and research overall, Ho says, because science is built on discovery, which requires curiosity—which benefits from a variety of creative perspectives. 

“If you try to solve a problem with the exact same tools over and over again, you’re not going to get a different answer, or you might not get whatever outcome you want,” she says. “Having different tool sets are really important. We’re all a sum of our life experiences, and if all of our life experiences are exactly the same, it’s not really going to give you a lot of ideas.”