Prof. Roberto Garza Mentors Young Su Ko ’22 to Myriad Successes

Young Su Ko and Roberto Garza

The Monday after Pomona’s class of 2022 graduated, Professor Roberto Garza, a physical and computational chemist, went into his lab. A melancholy came over him when he encountered the empty space that his former advisee Young Su Ko ’22 had occupied. “It was like withdrawal,” Garza laughed, but only partly joking.

Ko and Garza had worked closely together for the past three years. “He was almost like a father figure to me,” says Ko, who will begin his Ph.D. studies in computational chemistry this fall. Garza couldn’t be prouder—Ko graduated magna cum laude, was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi honor societies, and won the American Chemical Society Physical Chemistry Award, a Brackett Award and a John Stauffer Award for Academic Merit—but the pride he felt only made the loss more poignant.

Initial discoveries

Garza didn’t meet Ko until his sophomore year, when Ko took his general chemistry course. For someone to have achieved what Ko did after starting the chemistry major his sophomore year is remarkable, according to Garza.

Ko arrived at Pomona unsure of what to pursue academically. He thought he might major in economics because his mentality was, “I really need to make money,” and economics and money seemed related. But going into his sophomore year, he thought he would give science one more chance before he wrote it off, not having enjoyed science classes in high school.

What he encountered was that science courses at Pomona were much more thorough and engaging, especially the lab portion. At the same time, Garza noticed Ko’s brilliance in the subject. Garza soon recruited Ko to work in his lab.

Intensive inquiry

That led to four independent study courses in which Garza worked one-on-one with Ko for four consecutive semesters. Garza took it upon himself to catch Ko up, in a sense, teaching him a different computational technique each semester. They also worked together over two summers, during which Ko was also a mentor for students of the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS) program. The level of research Ko did was at the graduate school level, Garza says, using “powerful computational techniques that are used by seasoned computational chemists in the world.”

After one semester, Ko was hooked. During the month-long winter break of his sophomore year, Ko asked Garza if he could come into the lab and continue his research. Garza agreed. Ko took the Metrolink train from his aunt’s apartment in Los Angeles a few times a week to work in the lab through winter break. “It was a long ride from the L.A. station to the Claremont station in the mornings but doing the research as well as spending time with Dr. Garza made it really worth it,” says Ko.

For his senior thesis for which he earned an A with distinction, Ko studied the herbal medicine known as Qingfei Paidu Decoction that has been strongly recommended by the Chinese government for COVID-19 but whose effectiveness is still unclear. Ko used not only docking techniques, as a Chinese research group did, but, in addition, expanded the study by performing molecular dynamics and exploring different pockets in the receptor protein and more ligand conformations than those studied by the group.

Venturing out

Having Garza as a mentor and role model has led Ko to want to be a professor himself, hopefully at a liberal arts college. He was accepted to several top Ph.D. programs in the nation. Inspired by the distinguished faculty and their research, he ultimately chose to head to UC San Diego for a Ph.D. program in computational chemistry this fall. He was awarded a prestigious Phi Beta Kappa scholarship for his graduate studies and will be applying for the NSF graduate fellowship during his program.

Ko looks forward to staying in touch with Garza. “It never felt like, ‘Oh, once I graduate, I'm going to stop talking to him.’ I always felt like I’ll be in touch with him for a very long time. And I know that for sure because he’s on my phone, on my WhatsApp, just a message away,” says Ko.

Like a parent with a child, Garza is working on letting Ko go. He knows that his job as a professor is to launch students into the world.

“Young Su is not only going to become an amazing scientist doing top-notch research but a wonderful, effective and caring professor. I can’t wait to see him flourish even further,” Garza says.