Our 2021-22 Innovation Issue salutes educators who dare to imagine a world where life is better for their students:
“I love knowing I’m helping students learn something that will help them get a job or start a future career.”
When it comes to encouraging students to pursue biotech careers, Jo Wen Wu has it down to a science.
She sponsors mentorships and internships, holds weekend workshops and summer camps, and partners with industry experts to prepare students for well-paying careers.
The Fullerton College biology professor has an impressive list of awards. She was a finalist for National Postsecondary Teacher of the Year by the Association for Career and Technical Education, which honored her as the 2019 Region V Postsecondary Teacher of the Year. In 2017, she received the California Hayward Award for Excellence in Education and the Orange County Science and Engineering Fair Educator of the Year Award. She has also been selected twice for Teacher of the Year at Fullerton College, where she has taught since 1990.
But the greatest rewards for Wu, a member of United Faculty North Orange County CCD, stem from knowing that she’s opening doors for female, ESL and minority students who are underrepresented in the sciences.
“I love knowing I’m helping students learn something that will help them get a job or start a future career,” she says.
Her own story resonates with students. She moved to St. Charles, Missouri, from Taiwan in second grade without knowing English. Her father, a civil engineer, was already there working for a train design company. When he was blacklisted by the Chinese government for political activity, facing arrest if he returned home, it took the intervention of a U.S. senator for Wu, her mother and brother to seek political asylum and join him in America.
“There was no ESL program in my school,” she recalls. “They put me into special ed because they could give me more individual attention.”
Impressed by her math ability, teachers enrolled her in independent study. She learned English on her own by reading every children’s book in the local library. She read each story twice — once for word meanings and again for information. Once she mastered English, she entered science fairs and won awards in middle and high school.
Ernestine Long, one of the first female chemistry Ph.D.’s in Missouri, mentored Wu in high school and invited her to participate in summer research programs. Wu’s science fair awards and her work with Long led to full academic merit scholarships for her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Missouri and her doctoral degree in developmental and cell biology from UC Irvine.
Wu’s main course is cellular and molecular biology, where she emphasizes communication skills. “I have students answer questions in every class — so they won’t be scared in a presentation. I was very shy in college; when I was put on the spot and asked a question, it was terrifying.”
Now Wu is paying it forward, encouraging and mentoring students in the same way that Long helped her succeed (see “How Jo Wen Wu is encouraging and mentoring students” below).
She is modest about her accomplishments — but former students are eager to share how she has influenced their lives. “Dr. Wu constantly encourages students to participate in teaching, research and biotech workshops to show us the different facets of science,” says Rosa Serrano. “The hands-on exposure helped me determine my interests and prepared me for graduate studies in neuroscience.”
Sophia de Alba fondly remembers weekend workshops. “She helped me get into a paid internship summer program for minority students. After transferring to UC San Diego and getting my degree in biochemistry and cell biology, I am a scientist with multiple FDA products being tested on actual patients. Dr. Wu changed my life for the better. And I can’t thank her enough.”
How Jo Wen Wu is encouraging and mentoring students
- She established the Orange County Biotech Education Partnership, which connected industry advisers to develop a biotech certificate and degree pathway that is now offered at Fullerton, Irvine Valley, Santa Ana and Santiago Canyon colleges. Students can get certificates to become biomanufacturing technicians, lab assistants and lab technicians while earning an associate degree in biotechnology.
- She sponsors Saturday workshops led by her college student assistants, who teach high schoolers lab skills. She describes this as a “win-win”: College students learn to communicate and see themselves as leaders; high school students learn new skills.
- She created a weekend supply chain internship program, where high school students work with college students to produce lab reagents for molecular biology lab experiments. As coordinator of the Amgen Biotech Experience for Orange and Riverside county high schools, she provides equipment and resources that many high school teachers lack. The program has grown from seven teachers at seven schools to 80 teachers in 43 schools serving over 8,000 students per year (pre-pandemic).
- She started a summer science camp for middle and high schoolers. In addition to giving students hands-on experience in a college lab setting, younger students are mentored for a full year by her Fullerton students.