Angela Hoffman’s family lived below the poverty level and worked odd jobs while she was growing up in Lacey, Wash. Her parents decided that she and her six siblings needed to know how to do everything around the house, which came in handy later in her life. “The girls had to learn how to fix things—how to maintain stuff in the house, how to fix the lawn mower—and the boys had to learn how to cook and sew.”
Hoffman became a nun when she joined the Order of Saint Benedict after high school. She wanted to study science, but a career counselor told her, “Science is for men. You’d be working all by yourself in a lab somewhere, and you wouldn’t like that.” Her order was running some schools, so she started teaching second grade instead. “That wasn’t really my passion, but I did it because they needed me to do it.”
Her order eventually recognized that she wasn’t thriving and allowed her to pursue science. She completed a bachelor’s in biology in one year and got a position teaching at Saint Martin’s University. Hoffman was teaching general chemistry and education when the organic chemistry teacher quit, and she was offered his position. She hadn’t studied organic chemistry in three years but thought, “Sure, if you’re dumb enough to hire me, I’ll give it a shot!”
After two years, Hoffman’s desire to be more qualified drove her to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry. She enrolled at the Oregon Graduate Center, where she was one of five Ph.D. candidates studying chemistry and the only student in her lab. “The good thing about it was that no one was going to hold your hand. You had to read the manual.” After earning her Ph.D., Hoffman began work at the University of Portland, an undergraduate institution where she’s stayed for 28 years. She started a lab that primarily studies natural products, such as the chemotherapeutic compound paclitaxel.
Hoffman currently employs 14 undergraduates in her lab and sometimes hires high school students as well. “These folks go off and get really good graduate positions, because they know how to do research.” She has remained with her order and credits her early teacher training with her success. “If they hadn’t needed a second-grade teacher, I probably would not have gotten my education degree or my interest in teaching. But I think the way it happened was the right way.”