By Alla Katsnelson '92
Jaime Cheah '95 found her feet at Commonwealth and forged a path to the cutting edge of her discipline.
In the middle of Jaime Cheah's laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on a hexagonal table, sits a yellow robotic arm. The device allows biologists to automatically move two-inch-by-four-inch plastic plates containing hundreds to thousands of miniaturized experiments from instrument to instrument, through a complicated series of steps.
It's a powerful piece of machinery, the centerpiece of the technological armament Cheah oversees as the director of the High Throughput Sciences Facility at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT. Her lab is a core facility, which means her primary job is not to conduct her own research but to help all kinds of MIT scientists—biologists, mostly, but also mechanical and chemical engineers, materials scientists, chemists and more—use the multi-million-dollar suite of automation and robotics tools to enhance and accelerate their research. The tools allow scientists to run massive numbers of tiny experiments at once—that's the "high throughput" part—in order to screen chemicals that might treat a certain kind of cancer, for instance.
"I get to figure out how to maneuver and manipulate the technology to help researchers answer any question they want," Cheah says. "I love when people come in here with some wild and crazy idea, and they ask, 'Can we make it happen?' And I go, 'Yep, we're going to figure out how to make this happen.'"
Cheah had a strong interest in science even before high school, and she forged her passion for biology as a student at Commonwealth between 1991 and 1995. She came to Commonwealth from the Cambridge public schools with the help of A Better Chance, a program that helps students of color access scholarships to private schools. The transition wasn't easy. For one thing, Cheah was two years younger than most incoming ninth graders; she started kindergarten at age 4 when her family lived in Guam, and she also skipped third grade.
Although Cheah had always been a top-notch student, she found classes at Commonwealth to be much more intensive. "I distinctly remember in ninth grade English listening to Mr. Davis talk about 'the tone in which an author speaks.' Writing my first essay about Dickens's tone, I was lost because it was so different from public school, which is like, 'What happened in Chapter 3 of this book,'" she says. "It took me about a year to figure out what was expected of me."
One major grounding force as Cheah found her feet was dance with Jacqueline Curry, an activity she did for her full four years at Commonwealth. "It gave me a different level of discipline and an outlet for expression," Cheah says. Almost three decades later, Curry, who retired from Commonwealth in 2019, warmly remembers Cheah as a talented and dedicated student. "What a beautiful young dancer she was," Curry recalls. "Such a quick study—the minute I showed something, Jaime's got it. And she was so quick to help others."
The student's and teacher's connection ran deep. A photo collage that Cheah put together of dance students from 1994–1995 still hangs in Curry's study. "It's beautiful, and it's something I shall cherish all of my life," Curry says. Curry knew well that all the hours Cheah spent in the dance studio provided her a way to embrace a more fluid mode of being than was prioritized in academic coursework. As a dancer, "you've got to take time to breathe, you have to harness your energy," Curry says. "This is not biology; this is dance—you speak with your body."
"I love when people come in here with some wild and crazy idea, and they go, 'Can we make it happen?' And I go, 'Yep, we're going to figure out how to make this happen.'"
Commonwealth's science offerings back then were rigorous, yet somewhat basic. That didn't phase her, Cheah says. For Project Week her first year, Cheah wanted to do something related to biology, but the school's network wasn't especially strong in the sciences at the time. Luckily, she lived in Kendall Square, a hotbed of MIT students. And she had a very forward mother. "My mom basically walked next door to our neighbor and was like, 'You're an MIT scientist, can my daughter come sit in your lab for a week?'" she says.
Cheah loved the experience, and through her personal community lined up lab-based projects over the next three years. For Project Month her senior year, she worked in a Harvard Medical School lab studying the crystal structure of proteins; she did experiments and discussed them at lab meetings. "I'm pretty sure that what I did would not be allowed in most universities now, but it was really cool. They treated me almost like an undergrad or a grad student," she recalls. "It really opened up my eyes to bench science, so when I got to college I knew that's what I wanted to do."
Cheah carried on with research in structural biology as an undergraduate at McGill University in Montréal. Then, for her doctorate at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she wanted to try a different field, and another student suggested she do a rotation in the lab of neuroscientist Solomon Snyder—one of the field's venerables, who had done foundational research on how molecules called neurotransmitters pass along signals in brain cells. "I didn't plan to do my Ph.D. in neuroscience, but I landed there and I totally loved it," Cheah says. As a bonus, Snyder was a fantastic mentor, who gave students solid guidance on their research projects while giving them ample space to explore intellectually. "I lean on my experience as a graduate student for how I mentor people because I was so well-mentored by Sol," Cheah says.
Cheah initially thought she might apply her Ph.D. to industry "because it's the most direct path to patient impact." She did a postdoctoral fellowship at the pharmaceutical company Novartis, but then ended up back in academia, at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, using high throughput technology to correlate genetic features of cancers to drug response, with the end goal of personalizing treatments for specific types of cancer.
In 2014, she took up her current position directing the High Throughput Sciences Facility. It's been a perfect fit, says Angela Koehler, a Professor in Applied Biology at MIT's Koch Institute who has worked with Cheah for close to a decade. "Jaime is a technology development wizard, searching for bottlenecks in the drug discovery process and working with a broad array of scientists to remove those bottlenecks," says Koehler. "She reminds me of Matt Damon in the movie The Martian when he says he needs to 'science the shit out of this.'"
Last December, Cheah returned to Commonwealth for the first time since graduating to give an assembly at which she discussed her career trajectory as well as technology in cancer research. "Students were as I expected Commonwealth students to be: attentive and inquisitive, asking great questions about both the science presented but also about future patient impact and possible blockades," she says.
Cheah found a school that more actively embraces the hands-on and creative side of sciences than it did in the 1990s, says Emma Sundberg, Commonwealth's current biology teacher. A 2015 renovation of the school's science labs has made it possible for students to conduct quite advanced molecular biology experiments; this year, students in Biology 2 did a long-term cloning project. There's also a diversity of innovative electives, such as a course on the chemistry of materials used in ceramics and other arts.
The sciences are also popping up more often in student projects; they study the cosmos at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explore neurological research at Massachusetts General Hospital, and engage in artificial intelligence development at Cheah's homebase of MIT.
Who knows—Cheah might find current Commonwealth students knocking on her laboratory door soon too.
Alla Katsnelson '92 is a freelance science writer and editor specializing in biology, health and medicine, technology, and science policy.