Research Professor, Chemical Engineering
Group Leader, Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering
The drive that led Nancy Ho to make an indelible mark in biofuels research was born from the desire of a young girl to overcome weakness and hold her own among other youngsters. This conviction led to the creation of a unique yeast that could produce cellulosic ethanol and earned Ho an invitation as a special guest at President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address.
After earning a doctorate in molecular biology from Purdue in 1968, remained at the University to work in developing methods for DNA sequencing. A few years later, she became fascinated with recombinant DNA and its potential applications in technology, joining Purdue’s Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering in 1980 to lead research on the use of recombinant DNA techniques in creating microorganisms that can effectively produce ethanol from biomass sugars.
This work led in 1993 to the development of the world’s first genetically engineered cellulosic ethanol-producing Saccharomyces yeast – now known as the Purdue Yeast. It resulted in two patents; Ho’s own company, Green Tech America, which is commercializing the Purdue yeast in the U.S. and around the world; and ongoing research at her Purdue lab to improve the yeast for advanced biofuel production.
Ho, who was born on mainland China, moved to Taiwan as a teenager, and did her undergraduate studies at the National Taiwan University, says the Chinese emphasis on doing good for society instilled in her a desire to make her work count.
“As an elementary student in China, I wanted to help the country and do something for society. This was always in the back of my mind. I wanted to develop this yeast to contribute to society, because we need renewable fuel,” she says. “I won’t make something to be put on the shelf. It has to be fit for use. However, more importantly, the process must be safe. The Saccharomyces yeast is the safest industrial microorganism on earth; we have used it to bake bread and make wine for thousands of years. I was dedicated to do as much as I could to make this yeast for effective production of cellulosic ethanol. I am a very lucky scientist; I have always had the opportunity to pursue what I am most interested in doing and I haven’t tired of it yet.”
Inspiration in the kitchen: Ho began her scientific career while raising two sons – both now doctors – and came up with an easy way to balance work and home. “Many times I would do my best thinking when I washed the dishes,” she says. “You don’t need your mind when you wash dishes.”
Driven to succeed: This accomplished researcher describes her general personality as “laid back,” but acknowledges that she is driven, especially in science. “When I was young, I was sick a lot and physically weak. I had the ego, though, to want to be as good as others and I was interested in science and it seemed easier for me to master. So I was eager to do well in science. Chinese ancient scholars have encouraged us that if you devote yourself, you can get success.”
Follow your heart: Ho was elated when she finally discovered a passion – yeast research. “I was like a mad scientist. I learned everything I could related to yeast research, read all that I could about yeast,” she says. “That was a really exciting period. I was also an idealist, I have used all my imagination and designed the most perfect yeast for the production of biofuel, cellulosic ethanol, from cellulosic biomass. The current Purdue yeast is close to being such an ideal yeast for cellulosic ethanol production.”
High honors: Though she was invited by President George W. Bush to be a guest at the 2007 State of the Union address in recognition of her work in energy, Ho says the most exciting moment of her career came when the yeast that she developed first started working. “I had a theory, a hypothesis. I put it together and it worked. I was in my Purdue lab and the blood just went to my head.”
By Linda Terhune
Photos by: Mark Simons