To William Hwang ’02, the key to answering exciting questions in science often takes approaches from many different fields. To that end, he earned biomedical engineering, electrical & computer engineering, and physics degrees at Duke University, then earned an MSc in chemistry at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Now, he’s pursuing an MD/PhD at Harvard-MIT to pursue his dream of becoming a physician scientist. Xinyi Zhou ’10 interviews Mr. Hwang about his unique academic path and how he’s nurturing the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) enthusiasts through InnoWorks, which provides hands-on science and engineering workshops to middle-school students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Like many other Magnet students, your interest in STEM fields was piqued before high school. Can you tell us about some of the other programs you attended, or perhaps some favorite childhood experiments?
The first extracurricular science program I attended was "Hands on Science" in elementary school. I vividly remember the first time I looked through a microscope at my cheek cells and burning small holes in my shoe using a magnifying glass. Those early experiences had a profound impact on my interest in the STEM fields.
How did your time at Blair shape you? (Ms. Bosse still pulled out your lab notebook as a reference when I took Genetics/Cell Phys three years ago!)
I really enjoyed my time in the Blair Magnet. It was really only after I graduated that I found out how different my high school experience was from everyone else’s. The wonderful community of teachers and peers with similar STEM interests is unparalleled. The opportunity to take college-level classes, perform laboratory research, and participate in various STEM competitions at the local, national, and international level is truly unique.
I am flattered that Ms. Bosse still uses my lab notebook. She is a great teacher and her class really sparked my interest in Biology.
It seems like InnoWorks is your way of bringing those experiences in science and math to underprivileged kids. Could you tell our readers a little about Innoworks?
In college, I started InnoWorks because I realized how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to attend Magnet programs and other extracurricular programs that opened my eyes to the amazing possibilities in STEM. At the same time, being in an environment like Blair showed me that this is the not the reality for most kids, especially those from socioeconomically underprivileged backgrounds. InnoWorks is my way of making a small contribution towards addressing this problem.
United InnoWorks Academy (www.innoworks.org) is a student volunteer-run 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization dedicated to developing and implementing innovative STEM programs for underprivileged grade-school students. The primary goals of InnoWorks are to (1) provide underserved students with opportunities to explore the real-world links among science and engineering disciplines; (2) promote teamwork, enthusiasm for learning, and career interests in science, engineering, and medicine; (3) utilize cutting-edge neuroscience and educational research to develop mentoring and pedagogical methods that build problem-solving skills and student confidence; (4) harness higher-education expertise to benefit youth and foster the development of synergistic relationships between universities and communities; and (5) develop opportunities to inspire volunteerism, passion for service, and entrepreneurship in undergraduate and postgraduate students to prepare them as tomorrow’s educators, leaders, and role models.
The year 2012 marks the ninth year of InnoWorks. We have successfully conducted over 50 summer programs for more than 2000 students and benefited from the contributions of over 800 student volunteers. We currently have twelve chapters: Duke University, University of Maryland College Park, University of Arizona, University of Pennsylvania, University of Maryland Baltimore Campus, University of Michigan, Caltech, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California Los Angeles, Boston University, and Johns Hopkins University.
InnoWorks has been highlighted by numerous major television networks and newspapers. InnoWorks was selected as a 2007 BRICK Award winner, dubbed the “Oscars of youth service awards” by CNN, and featured on millions of Doritos™ bags distributed nationwide. InnoWorks was chosen by national best-selling authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner as an organization with outstanding leadership in The Student Leadership Challenge: Five Practices for Exemplary Leaders. Recently, InnoWorks was awarded the Grand Prize in the MIT IDEAS Competition and the Community Choice Award in the Global Challenge Competition.
How can we get involved in InnoWorks?
We’re always looking for students interesting in volunteering with InnoWorks. Please visit our website at www.innoworks.org for more about the organization and contact information for our chapter leaders.
You've taken an interdisciplinary approach to your studies. Can you explain your motivations and how that's shaped your thinking?
"Interdisciplinary" has become a popular buzzword but nevertheless, I think that many interesting questions in STEM are so complex now that the best approach for solving them really does require the synergistic combination of approaches from traditionally separate fields. Personally, I have always been attracted to biomedically relevant questions, but I wanted to have a strong physics and engineering background so that I could address biological problems in a more quantitative and rigorous manner. I found that having an interdisciplinary background was very helpful for me in my research pursuits. For example, when I did my Masters in Chemistry at the University of Oxford, I worked on developing droplet interface bilayers (DIBs), a new technique that involves the formation of a bilayer between lipid-monolayer encased aqueous droplets. Membrane proteins such as ion channels dispersed inside the droplets can spontaneously insert into the DIB. Electrodes within the droplets enable the application of an electrical potential, as well as the measurement of ionic current flowing through embedded channels and pores. In contrast to traditional planar bilayers and supported bilayers, an arbitrary number of DIBs can be formed, generating complex 2D and even 3D networks that have potential applications such as drug screening, artificial tissue models, and biochemical computation. However, the electrical behavior of these DIB networks is complicated and difficult to understand from examining experimental traces alone. As the only member of the lab with a background in engineering and physics, I was in a unique position to tackle this problem. Towards this end, I used electrical circuit analysis to simulate various DIB networks and developed a model to help us understand properties of complex DIB networks.
What's your advice to other Magnet students who want to study a broad range of topics, or aren't sure what they want to do yet?
I would advise them to do what they enjoy and to be flexible to their changing interests, whether it is a very specific area or involves dabbling in many different topics. It is also a good idea to develop a skill set that is relatively unique so that you bring a special perspective to any team that you’re a part of.
Most importantly, I would express to them that it’s okay not to always know what you want to do. Exploring your interests and enjoying the journey is often the best part.
You're currently pursuing an MD/PhD at Harvard-MIT and studying biophysics. What exactly is your research about?
I am doing my PhD in Biophysics with Professor Xiaowei Zhuang. The following is a brief description of my research:
Packaging genomic DNA into chromatin is necessary to fit the nearly two meters of human DNA into each cell nucleus. However, this extreme degree of condensation occludes many regulatory elements. Thus, eukaryotic cells depend on a dynamic balance between genome compaction and access facilitated by histone modifying enzymes and chromatin remodeling complexes. Chromatin remodelers are ATP-dependent molecular motors that assemble, disassemble, translocate, and modify the composition of nucleosomes. Importantly, defects in the chromatin remodeling machinery underlie many cancers and multisystem developmental disorders. Uncovering the mechanisms of chromatin remodelers is a significant challenge because they catalyze reactions that are both biochemical and mechanical in nature and too complex to fully understand with conventional ensemble methods. Probing the dynamics of individual chromatin remodelers in real-time with single-molecule techniques can help fill this knowledge gap.
I helped develop the first single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer (smFRET) assay to study the dynamics of chromatin remodeling in real-time and I’m now using this technique to study the mechanisms by which chromatin remodelers are physiologically regulated.
What are you currently doing besides academics and InnoWorks?
I met the love of my life, Katie Lee Hwang, while we were both studying in Oxford. We got married a couple years ago and are now both in our fourth year of the Harvard-MIT MD/PhD program. I still play volleyball competitively with the MIT team.
What would you like to pursue in the future?
I am training to be a physician-scientist and I hope my career will be an exciting mixture of research, clinical, and entrepreneurial work. I am interested in developing molecular imaging and microfluidic chip platforms to help realize rapid, non-invasive personalized medicine, particularly for cancer diagnostics and treatment.