Research scientist Huan Ngo is a typical driven, career-minded, achievement-oriented former Yalie. Well, almost.
Double bachelor’s degree in microbiology and human physiology? Check. Ph.D. in molecular biology? Sure. Author of scholarly articles with titles like “Biogenesis and Functions of Secretory Lysosomes (Rhoptries) in Human Parasite Toxoplasma”? Of course.
The only difference between Ngo and most other prominent research scientists is the location of his latest laboratory: the basement of a New Haven middle school, where he’s been teaching science for the past two years.
The unusual nature of his most recent career move is not lost on Ngo, who spent six years doing postdoctoral research at Yale before becoming the science lab instructor at Sheridan Communications & Technology Middle School. But when he is asked if he regrets swapping the fast track for science fairs and school lunch, Ngo’s passion speaks for itself.
“I feel alive when I’m doing this,” he said.
Granted, Ngo is not your typical middle school science teacher. He wears cowboy boots and a necklace, greets fifth-graders with a twist on a high-five, and compares himself and his adult lab assistant to Batman and Robin.
But it’s not hard to tell that Ngo likes his new job — and that his students like him. Many of Ngo’s fifth- through eighth-graders voluntarily stay in his lab after school and work with him for up to three hours after dismissal. Sheridan principal Thomas McCarthy said he often must tell Ngo and his students to go home.
“The kids love him — the fact that he’s got a roomful of people at six o’clock at night should be the telling point,” McCarthy said. “It’s just dynamite to see this type of science occurring at this level, and kids actually looking forward to it on a daily basis.”
Ngo was similarly excited when he first got “hooked” on science in the 1980s during a summer botany course at the University of Minnesota. He abandoned his philosophy and literature double major and threw himself into studying microorganisms. (“They’ve got sexy moves,” Ngo explained.) In 1996, after receiving a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ngo arrived at Yale to do research on infectious diseases.
But as he got more and more caught up in the day-to-day academic grind, Ngo said he began to feel he was ignoring other aspects of life.
“I realized that when I drive to Yale, I drive through somebody’s neighborhood. I just kind of block it out; they don’t even exist. And there was a part of me sometimes where I felt I should be doing something,” he said.
After six years at Yale, Ngo decided his heart was no longer in research. Declining job offers from universities and biotechnology companies across the country, he decided it would be more rewarding to give back to the community.
“The problem of urban decay, social injustice, social disparity — It always bothered me, but I was always like, ‘I’ve got to finish my Ph.D., I’ve got to get that next paper,’ so I always put it off to the side,” he said. “And for some reason, right after I got all these job offers, I felt like — I need to go answer some of the things that have been burning inside of me.”
A class act
On a recent Thursday afternoon at Sheridan, Ngo joked around with two students, Amber and Simone, while helping them dilute homemade baby food for an upcoming science fair project. Then he set up a telescope for another boy before checking in on two fifth-graders working on a procedure for their experiment — teaching goldfish to swim through mazes.
It’s not quite toxoplasma research, but Ngo said his current work can teach him just as much.
“When I was doing dilution of bacteria in the lab, I was just doing it. I never even appreciated the dilution concept — I just opened the book, I just did it. But now, to apply the concept to middle school kids in a way that makes it that they want to learn it, I have a totally different appreciation for everything,” he said.
But teaching in an urban school means that sometimes, Ngo’s personal background means more to his students than his scientific expertise. After he immigrated to the United States from Vietnam at the age of 13, Ngo was abandoned by his parents. As a 16-year-old, he slept on the streets and at the restaurant where he worked as a busboy.
His tough childhood — part of the reason he chose to teach in an urban setting — lets him reach some of the more difficult kids, Ngo said.
“They don’t care much that I was a scientist — they care that I was homeless, I did not have parents to take care of me, and then, that I made it to be somebody respectable,” Ngo said. “That is more powerful to them. It reaches underneath.”
After his second year of teaching, Ngo has high hopes for his impact on science education in New Haven. He’s already helped Sheridan secure a partnership with NASA, making the school one of only 50 in the country to be named a NASA Explorer School. In the long-term, Ngo said he hopes to create a model program for the city that takes a hands-on, integrative approach to science, technology and math education.
But ultimately, Ngo said, his real job is to “even things out” for his students — and that is what makes his move from Yale to Sheridan worth it.
“It’s my job to drive these kids, raise their expectations, raise what they expect of themselves, raise what other people expect of them,” he said. “If I can use my credentials to bring in NASA, to get effective help from Yale, hopefully we’re going to even out the odds a little bit.”
And on a more personal level, Ngo said, working with kids brings him more gratification than anything else on his resume.
“As long as I can reach those rare moments and feel like I made an impact on some of these children, I will sleep well at night,” he said. “It doesn’t have [to have] anything to do with science.”