In 2007, the UW-River Falls Biology department had posted a job opening in their department. With the recession that had engulfed the United States, there were many applicants, but Biology Department Chair Mark Bergland said that the department was looking to hire someone who could fill a developmental biologist position.
“It’s basically the study of how signaling between cells and an embryo result in the embryo developing into an adult – so its really sophisticated stuff,” Bergland said.
While looking at applications, one stood out to Bergland in particular.
After a phone interview, Bergland noticed something that was unique about this candidate.
“He came across as just a really nice, approachable kind of person, and I could sense that he would be really great with students and that students could really relate to him – I could just feel it,” Bergland said.
Cheng-Chen Huang grew up in Taiwan and attended undergraduate studies there. Later, he moved to the United States to earn his doctorate studying cell and developmental biology.
After, he returned to Taiwan to serve his required time in the Taiwanese military and continue his research in developmental biology using zebrafish at Academia Sinica.
By 2007, he had begun to send out applications, both in the United States and Taiwan, to hopefully gain a position as a professor.
In 2008, the UWRF biology department flew Huang to the United States to formally interview for the assistant professor position at UWRF. Four years after this hire, Assistant Professor Huang received the Distinguished Teachers award from Chancellor Dean Van Galen.
“What is really unusual about it is that he got the award after just a few years,” Bergland said.
This award is a prestigious honor given to one professor each year after being nominated by graduating seniors and alumni.
This surprise did not end with Bergland, but carried on to the recipient himself.
“Am I in a dream? It doesn’t sound real to me,” Huang said. “I never thought I would get this award.”
One of the reasons that Bergland said might have been part of the reason for Huang to have received this award was because of his interest in getting students involved in his research.
“This research involves using zebrafish as a model to test chemical compounds on a heart failure condition created in fish embryo that mimics human heart failure. The goal is to try to find drugs that could have a positive impact on their system and possibly lead to ways to help people with heart failure,” Huang said.
“It sounds a little bit odd at first because you’re using a fish as a model to study the circulator system of humans basically,” Bergland said, “But we’re all related so it works really well.”
Huang is only one of the few researchers that are looking to using zebrafish as an organic model, but the way he involves students in research is unique.
Even though he admits that it is a lot of work to arrange the tests for student to do and to prepare labs, he enjoys working with an average of 10 students each semester.
“Seeing students understand the concepts and learn the techniques is one of greatest joys to me,” Huang said.
He also provides these students with the opportunity to go to Taiwan with him over the summer to meet with other biology researchers and talk to professions in their fields.
These connections, Bergland said, are what makes students receptive to him.
Huang values these personal connections that he can make as a result of small class sizes at UWRF, he said.
“I know the background of almost every student and I know the strengths of each student. It was amazing to me and I was glad to do that because that gave me better idea of how to help each student. I like that because I know each student is different and each student has different ways of learning,” Huang said.
With his upbringing in a strict Taiwanese education system and his first teaching experiences as a teacher assistant on the east coast while he was attending graduate school, he said he feels lucky to be at UWRF.
“The department is very supportive and the students are with good characters. I’m very happy to be at UWRF because it is a great environment that I can help students learning biology and biomedical research.”