Sheryl Tsai
“I’ve always believed that people who care about teaching also do great research,” says Sheryl Tsai, associate professor of molecular biology & biochemistry, chemistry and pharmaceutical sciences. “One feeds the other, and at UCI we take teaching seriously.” Steve Zylius / University Communications

UC Irvine’s Sheryl Tsai has earned international recognition for research showing how biologically active molecules can be used to create drugs improving human health. But a large brass orb on her office desk reveals another passion.

Given to her in 2007 by dean Al Bennett, it’s a Golden Apple Award for Teaching Excellence in Biological Sciences, bestowed annually in recognition of high-quality faculty instruction.

It also symbolizes Tsai’s dedication to the 900 or so students she educates each year in venues ranging from large lecture halls to small group settings. Besides the Golden Apple Award, she received the School of Biological Sciences Teaching Excellence Award from the Division of Undergraduate Education in 2009, and graduating seniors last year chose her as the outstanding professor in biological sciences.

“I’ve always believed that people who care about teaching also do great research,” says Tsai, associate professor of molecular biology & biochemistry, chemistry, and pharmaceutical sciences. “One feeds the other, and at UCI we take teaching seriously.”

Outside the classroom, Tsai mentors five or six students per year through UCI’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, which encourages and facilitates research and creative activities by students from all schools and academic disciplines. UROP hosts an annual symposium showcasing participants’ projects. Four students mentored by Tsai have won the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research.

“Sheryl is an excellent mentor,” says Said Shokair, UROP director. “She strongly believes in integrating the research and teaching missions of the university, translating her knowledge into helping her students propel themselves into future careers. Her students are committed, prepared and appreciative of the environment she provides them. The quality of their work is very high.”

“Undergraduate research is at the heart of the educational experience here at UCI,” Tsai says. “I’m extremely proud of all my students who get involved with UROP.”

Her drive to mentor up-and-coming students stems from the guidance she herself received from teachers. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Tsai was raised by artistic parents who urged her to seek a career as a concert pianist. That changed, she says, when a high school instructor performing an experiment with a laser got her hooked on science.

After earning a doctorate in chemistry at UC Berkeley, Tsai came to UCI in 2003, joining an innovative group of scientists who combine approaches in molecular biology and organic chemistry to learn how molecules function and can be utilized in new drugs.

UCI researchers are leaders in this growing field, called chemical biology. Many of them — including Tsai — are among the faculty in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, which was founded in 2006 to integrate drug discovery concepts from fields as diverse as biology, chemistry, molecular and cell biology, chemical engineering, materials science, pharmaceutics, pharmacology and physiology.

Tsai studies complex enzymes — polyketides, lipids and sugars — with the potential to be synthesized into cholesterol-lowering, antibiotic, antiviral and anticancer agents. She and colleagues have investigated a toxin formed on nuts and grains that, when ingested, can break down a key cancer prevention gene in the body. The work led to Tsai’s 2006 designation as a Pew Scholar and recent recognition as a UCI Chancellor’s Fellow.

“This toxin — called aflatoxin — causes liver cancer in humans,” she says. “Hopefully, our findings will foster the development of inhibitors and, eventually, a new chemoprevention approach to this deadly cancer.”

Given Tsai’s acumen as a teacher, her students could someday do just that.