From a Small Island to a Cutting-edge Lab

Neuroscientist Noell Cho, who grew up in the cultural melting pot of Guam, helps students from all backgrounds feel at home in science
A woman in a lab coat sits in a lab. Noell Cho, a PhD student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, mentors other first-generation college students, Pacific Islanders, and women in science.
Noell Cho, a PhD student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, mentors other first-generation college students, Pacific Islanders, and women in science. Photo: Alonso Nichols
May 19, 2021

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As a first-generation college student from the small island of Guam in the western Pacific, Noell Cho was well into her undergraduate degree before she realized that a career in research was even a possibility.

“In high school, a scientific career or a PhD in research wasn’t really talked about,” Cho says.

Guam, which has a population of around 167,000, didn’t have any large research institutes to offer a glimpse of such careers. So when she became interested in biology, studying medicine seemed like the obvious path. “I feel like it's a very common story about being a child of immigrants, and especially being a child of Korean American immigrants,” Cho explains.

However, along the way, Cho uncovered a passion for neuroscience that eventually led her to a PhD program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where she not only conducts cutting-edge research, but is committed to mentoring students as they embark on their own research careers.

Cho first felt a pull towards research during her undergraduate biology labs at Lehigh University. Her interest piqued, she gained more research experience after graduation working as a technician in cancer and immunology labs.

“I quickly learned that I really liked being part of something where you’re thinking up a project and seeing it through,” Cho says. “As a premed student it felt like you were in the books, studying things that are tried and true,” she adds, whereas in research “you’re starting from a hypothetical question and tackling that question in such a free way.”

Yet it wasn’t until Cho began working in a stem cell lab that she realized she wanted to study neuroscience—and, with the mentorship of a female principal investigator, began to envision her own career as a research scientist. “That representation and having support from someone who had confidence in me so early on was so impactful,” Cho says. It empowered her to pursue a PhD.

At Tufts, Cho joined the lab of Stephen Moss, a professor of neuroscience. The lab studies molecular signaling pathways in the brain that are involved in epilepsy and other neurological disorders. Cho’s research focuses on a recently identified protein that plays a key role in regulating these pathways—and may have potential as a drug target.

“I am intrigued by what we have come to learn about neural circuitry and how this has informed our approach to studying neurological disease,” Cho says.

Cho also serves as a mentor for first-generation college students, Pacific Islanders, and women in science—something that she considers a source of constant inspiration. “Everyone’s experiences are so unique and the things we can learn from each other are ever-expanding,” she says.

On campus, she mentors students in her lab and is active in student-led organizations such as Tufts Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWiSE) and Tufts Scientists Promoting INclusive Excellence (SPINEs). She is also involved in Boston University’s Upward Bound Math Science summer program for high schoolers and connects informally with students from Guam attending college in Boston.

When working with students—especially those that are the first in their families to attend college—she makes an extra effort to teach them the “hidden curriculum” of unwritten lessons and rules about academia that she had to figure out on her own.

Her commitment to inclusivity, she says, stems from her experiences growing up in a place that is a mix of immigrants from Southeast Asia, indigenous Chamorro people, and U.S military families.

“Guam is such a medley of so many different cultures, and having that worldly view, I try to be aware of how diverse people’s backgrounds are coming into lab and coming into scientific research.” In practice, this means not making assumptions about what people know or the experiences they’ve had—and adapting her mentoring style as needed. “My culture has provided me with the tools to speak in many languages, figuratively speaking,” she says.

She has learned a great deal from meeting scientists from around the world—such as the postdoctoral researcher in her lab from Hong Kong and Canada who attended school in the United Kingdom and Austria—and hearing how their experiences compare to her own.

As Cho has advanced in her career, she has come to embrace her Pacific Islander heritage, along with her unique upbringing. Race and culture are just starting to become part of the conversation in higher education, she says, and she now understands the importance of advocating for and amplifying Asian American and Pacific Islander stories and voices.

Ultimately, Cho strives to imbue students with the confidence to pursue careers in research, regardless of where they come from: “One thing I try to teach students is that no matter your background and experience, what you find motivates you and interests you will take you far."