Fresh Faculty: Mona Wu Orr

Mona Wu Orr is an assistant professor of biology.  She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in biological science at the University of Maryland, College Park. She previously worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Health. She began at the college in September.

Q: When did you first know you were into biology? What sparked your interest in the field? 

A: I’ve always been somewhat interested in just sciences in general. But I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact time in which I got interested in biology. I really enjoyed my high school biology and chemistry classes, but I don’t know at the time that was what told me I wanted to be a biologist. It was just a series of ‘this seems fun at the time,’ and then that just kept going until it became a career. 

Q: Why did you choose to work at Amherst? What about the school makes it an appealing place to work?

A: I loved the interview. I loved the department. When I came here, I had lunch with students, and the energy and the intellectual curiosity and vibrancy of the student body, the ones that I talked to particularly, was just very appealing. And they really value the things that I value, like being a good educator, interacting with students one on one. I didn’t want to be in a place where I had 300 students in my class. I wouldn’t be able to know who they were. I could try my best to learn 300 names over a semester, but it would still be so hard to get that one-on-one interaction, and so I wanted to be in a place that had that. 

I also absolutely love my research, and Amherst has this fantastic building and a lot of resources and funding and value that they put on faculty research that we do with our students. I really enjoyed teaching in a lecture type setting, you know, doing discussion groups, and I also really enjoy teaching at the bench where I can work with students and see them come up with projects and explore their own ideas. I could do both of those here.

Q: What are your research interests? What are you currently researching here?

A: I’m interested in how bacteria respond to stressful environments. There’s a lot of different environmental changes, and bacteria are really small. Imagine if you’re an E. coli on a spinach leaf versus an E. coli in somebody’s gut. They’re very different environments, and so they have to be able to adapt what they’re doing in order to survive. Or, if you imagine that you’re a bacterium, and you’re in this delightful tissue with lots of things that you have to survive, then you’re being challenged by antibiotics. So, sometimes bacteria need to be able to survive to those stresses as well.

One of the mechanisms that I’m interested in is how bacteria use these very, very small proteins that they synthesise often upon introduction of some sort of stress: temperature, antibiotics, acid, all sorts of things. There were assumptions in the past about what was big enough to be a real protein encoding gene, and technology has advanced such that we can detect these very small proteins that previously we just thought didn’t exist and that piece of the genome was just empty. And so a lot of these, in fact, do exist, we can see that they’re there, but we don’t really know what they’re doing. But, the few that have been characterized or found serendipitously seemed to be really important for modulating the function of other proteins either by changing their ability to act or changing their stability or changing their localization. I find that really fascinating. My lab right now is looking at ones that are synthesized in the presence of antibiotics and trying to see how some of these small proteins could affect antibiotic resistance.

Q: What is it like transitioning into a new school and new job during the pandemic? 

A: I think that it’s been very difficult. Everybody here has been incredibly supportive. I’ve got a really wonderful department. They’re calling, and they’re checking in, and they text me. But, my husband and my son are still in Maryland, and I’m here until December when they come back up. It’s a bunch of different transitions, from being in a family with them as my support network to being alone. And, going to a very different location because I’ve grown up in and lived all of my life and fairly urban areas. This is definitely not —  it’s beautiful, but it’s just different.

It’s also been tough because my class is remote, and I would love to interact with my students in a more direct way. We just have remote office hours and lectures. So it’s been very bizarre. But that being said, I’m very, very happy to be here.

I do have a thesis student in my lab, and I have a sophomore who is doing research and other students who are interested that I’ve been talking to. So, I’m really hoping to be able to, even under these less than ideal circumstances, get to be a member of the community.

Q: On the topic of Covid, what was your quarantine like? Were you able to pick up any new hobbies? How did you pass your time?

A: The schools closed in Maryland, and so my husband and I teamed up with our next door neighbors who we’re good friends with [to teach our children] —  their kids are fairly similar age as my husband’s and mine — we just swapped off who did what. In the morning, I did reading and math and some science. Then, somebody else did geography and physical education. We just tried our best to make sure that the other parents had time to do work, while the children weren’t lighting anything on fire.

I’m a microbiologist. I love bacteria. I love cooking, so I just did a lot of fermentation, which is also fun to do with children. We made sourdough breads. We made kombucha. We made jeon. We made water kefir. I showed them yeast under the microscope. We made butter and cheese, which is sort of food chemistry. I [also] picked up hobbies that were child-entertainment-friendly. I got my son into Minecraft and Pokemon, which was awesome for a little bit, but then he wouldn’t stop talking about it. 

Q: As a biology professor and someone with a little bit of background in epidemiology, what do you hope for with a potential vaccine? 

A: I can’t say without the data, whether or not I’m confident in it. I am cautiously optimistic. I think that a lot of very intelligent people are working on multiple fronts to create a vaccine, and a lot of the things that would slow down vaccine production, [aren’t happening] like waiting for the previous step to complete before revving up the next step, because of monetary issues. You don’t want to get ready for the next phase if the first phase was not successful. The fact that these are happening simultaneously means that things are moving at a much faster rate than when normally produced. I think if the trial results come back positive, then I’m optimistic. If they come back not so great, then I’m glad we did the trial to know. My hopes are that we have one, that it’s effective, that it’s actually a protective vaccine, that it can be scaled up in time for administration and that people actually get it because I feel like there’s been so much misinformation and fear, which is understandable. This is new, and this is scary. We as scientists don’t always do the best job of communicating what we’ve spent decades learning. I hope that if we have one that works, that enough people go and get it.

Q: What do you think is something you have found to appreciate more now that our lives have been so upended?

A: I think the value of community and how interconnected we all are. One of the things that I found really uplifting even while we were stuck at home horrified by the overall world, were the number of people who were reaching out to other people to make sure they were all right. The amount of support that you’re able to do even not in person: texting, calling, dropping something by on somebody’s front porch. 

The types of protests and organizing that can occur not in person. In D.C., a lot more things were happening in person, like, even with social distancing, folks had rallies and protests in their cars to support our communities. That level of understanding, community wellness, where I’ve seen it, has been reassuring.

Q: What is something that you wish you knew as a student that you know now? 

A: I wish I knew that I should go talk to my professors. I was so intimidated by them. They had doctorates. They’re experts. They’ve published scientifically. They’re these intelligent people who are dispensing knowledge, and I just felt sort of scared to go and tell them I didn’t know what was going on because I often didn’t. And now that I’m on the other end, I’m like I don’t know what’s going on. And, I just want students to know that we’re here because we like teaching, so come talk to us if you don’t know what’s happening.

Q: What are your hopes for your career? Where do you kind of see yourself going in the next five to 10 years?

A: I have a really silly thing that is like a life goal, and that’s to be the main draw at an important person fundraiser. And I don’t know if they have any of that here but I’m like ‘that would be fun.’ I think I’m already doing what I want to do. I’m getting to teach students. I’m getting to find new things. I think I hope that for the next five, 10, 20 years until retirement that I just get to be able to do that and do it better. I guess that’s what it is to be better at it than I am right now. This is kind of the dream job.