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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Curtis Ho

Organometallics lecturer uses his calling as a Buddhist monk to help calm the stresses of academic life

by Melissa Gilden
April 11, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 15



Growing up on 3 continents

A childhood photo of Curtis Ho.
Credit: Courtesy of Curtis Ho
Curtis Ho as a sixth grader at Kowloon Junior School in Hong Kong

Curtis Ho always wanted to be a scientist, but his path didn’t exactly go the way of his boyhood dreams. The son of an IBM employee father from Shanghai and a homemaker from Hong Kong, Ho lived in the greater Toronto area until he was 8 years old. “I wanted to be an astrophysicist for NASA,” he says. Ho and his family then moved to Hong Kong for several years where Ho, keeping with his family’s Chinese Buddhist tradition, began his training to become a Buddhist monk. The pollution and hypercompetitive academic environment of Hong Kong led them to settle in Tasmania, Australia, where both his aunt and Buddhist master lived. Ho says that in high school students looked at him differently because of his shaved head and Buddhist garb. While Tasmania is a conservative place, he says, “it is becoming more and more open and accepting as they realize that cultural exchange is valuable to the community.”


Switching to chemistry

A photo of several people in cap and gown regalia.
Credit: Courtesy of Curtis Ho
Curtis Ho (third from left) attending the graduation of his first batch of chemistry students in 2015

Ho attended the University of Tasmania (UTAS), initially wanting to study microbiology. But Ho quickly found another academic passion, and he switched his major to chemistry. “I enjoyed how everything works on a fundamental level,” he says. “I love the details that chemistry gives, the mechanistic details of reactions, and how they apply to life.” Ho went on to pursue his PhD in organometallic chemistry at UTAS.


A love for teaching

Curtis Ho, in personal protective gear, standing at his Schlenk line.
Credit: Courtesy of Curtis Ho
Curtis Ho in his lab

Ho was offered a 3-year teaching position immediately after earning his degree and fell in love with teaching and academia. “I love teaching and passing on what I understand and know to the next generation,” especially inspiring new chemists, he says. Ho says that his students are intrigued by but also sensitive about the shaved head and Buddhist clothing that his peers found strange in high school. His advice to chemistry students? “Find a really good mentor,” he says. “A really good mentor is one that, if you do the work for them, they’ll do just as much—or even more—for you to help get you where you want to go.”


Buddhism and science

A photo of Curtis Ho in an orange costume.
Credit: Courtesy of Curtis Ho
Curtis Ho in his lion dance costume

In addition to teaching chemistry at UTAS, Ho teaches weekly classes on Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and martial arts at the Tasmanian Chinese Buddhist Academy of Australia. As a Buddhist monk, he also trains in Buddhist martial arts, is a regular performer of the traditional lion dance to share Chinese culture, and does volunteer work to give back to his community. Buddhism is about not letting yourself be controlled by external factors, such as stress, he says. That has helped guide the way he has faced adversity, rejection, and other negative things in his life. “I feel that my Buddhist training has allowed me to deal” with the stresses of academia and earning a PhD, Ho says. “It has allowed me to not be so put down by what is given to me.”



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