Your Gifts at Work

UH Professor Margaret Cheung encourages young girls to consider science careers

As a child growing up in Taiwan, Margaret Cheung’s interest in natural phenomena was first grabbed by colorful photos in science magazines. Then, that interest was further spurred by sights viewed through a microscope and at the Hong Kong Planetarium.

By 15, Cheung knew she wanted to be a scientist, and she began following a path that would eventually lead her to the University of Houston, where she is a professor and researcher in the physics department.

“I have always been fascinated by how things work, and physics is a wonderful tool to understand how things work,” Cheung said. “I wanted to know why materials became life-like through physics, so it turned out it was an excellent discipline for me to pursue the understanding of fundamental science.”

After receiving her undergraduate degree in chemistry in Taiwan, Cheung was admitted to the University of California at San Diego, where she earned her Ph.D. in physics. While in graduate school, she developed a lifelong mentorship with her Ph.D. adviser – an early experience that taught her the importance of mentoring her own students.

After pursuing postdoctoral work at the University of Maryland, Cheung found her way to the University of Houston in 2006.

“The Department of Physics was starting new research areas, such as biological research,” she said, explaining her decision to come to UH. “In addition, the resources in the Houston area, such as the Texas Medical Center, make UH a great environment for innovative research. That is why I am here.”

At UH, Cheung started a research and education program in theoretical biological physics and soft matter. Her research group – The Cheung Group – studies the behavior of biological molecules in cells using physics theories, modeling and computer simulations.

“This knowledge will impact disease-related research, so we can detect how symptoms develop at an early stage,” Cheung said. “For instance, in diseases like infectious diseases and cancerous diseases, we use computer simulations and modeling to try to understand and predict their behavior inside a cell, particularly under normal and under disease conditions.”

The knowledge that this research could help people with diseases makes it particularly rewarding and exciting, she said.

Cheung’s research is supported by the National Science Foundation, which in July 2009 awarded her $219,000 to study the behavior of protein folding and interactions in a cell.

In her research, Cheung works with undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, and maintains a close, mentoring relationship with all of them.

“I like the way that students and faculty members are very close,” she said. “I have several excellent graduate students and collaborators that really helped me jumpstart my research program.”

Cheung said she tries to develop personal relationships with students so they are not intimidated or afraid to ask her questions. She keeps as many lines of communication open with her students as possible – she even has a Twitter account, and sends Tweets about the latest news for her research group.

“By removing this barrier, it helps students come forward and talk to you about what they want,” Cheung said. “You can give them some timely advice that will turn out to be crucial to some of the students.”

In addition to her work with her research group, Cheung spends countless hours working with elementary, middle school and high school girls, trying to get them interested in thinking about math and science as a career.

“Once I came to UH, I realized there is a need for role models in science, so I offered workshops for high school students and teachers, as well as reaching out to young girls in elementary and middle school, for them to share the excitement of research,” she said. “It is very important to bring the excitement of research into the classroom.”

In 2009 alone, Cheung’s outreach work has impacted more than 400 young people in the Houston area.

It means a lot to her to serve as a mentor to young girls, because when she was young, her own mentors helped her focus in on her career.

“I realize that girls are often quite intimidated by science and mathematics. Without mentorship, students will miss out on the opportunity to consider science and engineering as their career options,” Cheung said. “This is very important in middle school and high school, because they could miss out on classes that will train them to learn more mathematics and physics. Without that background, they may not have the opportunities to pursue a degree in these very exciting fields.”

And for those who are interested in science as a career, Cheung likes to point out that the University of Houston, with its access to major leaders in the energy and health industries, is a great place to study.

“It is an exciting time to do science in general,” Cheung said. “I’m very happy that UH is at the right time and right location. Houston is the city of energy and health. With all of these right ingredients combined, it makes UH an excellent place for research. It is very exciting.”