After graduating from UIUC, Hugo Ong (PhD, '07, Zimmerman) moved to New York City and slept on his brother’s couch until he could find a job in a sector that interested him.
Now, just over a decade later, Ong is living on the West Coast in the East Bay area outside of San Francisco with his wife and two children. He is a healthcare VP Analyst and Associate Portfolio Manager at Allianz Global Investors, a long-only investment firm, with a focus on biotechnology and genomics. He develops and maintains investment ideas within his sector and communicates them to the various portfolio managers across the firm.
In hindsight, Ong said, moving to New York City without an opportunity “lined up” was a risky move, considering it was not a conventional move at the time and was just before the great financial crisis of 2008.
“But it's the time when you're young that you have to take these kinds of risks to get what you want. To be clear, I didn't know that at the time,” said Ong, who is the featured speaker 12-1 p.m. Friday, May 21, in the first event of the 2021 Virtual Career Seminar Series organized by the Department of Chemistry Graduate Student Advisory Committee. Register for the virtual event here.
The Career Seminar Series is held annually and dedicated to providing graduate students and post-doctoral associates with information on a variety of career choices.
Ong was raised in Niagara Falls, Canada.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up and where I stayed until the end of high school. My father decided to emigrate to the US, where I followed him for greater opportunity,” Ong said.
He attended Northern Kentucky University, where he had “wonderful professors” in organic chemistry and biochemistry who invited him to try his hand at research.
“My biochemistry professor told me I was the first student in her lab to come up with a research project entirely on my own,” said Ong, who graduated with degrees in biology and chemistry. “I had such a great time in the laboratory that I decided to pursue a graduate education in chemistry, which led me to UIUC.”
He chose UIUC because of its tremendous reputation in chemistry and engineering, he said, recalling how the Illinois Chemistry PhD program was challenging.
“I was hardly the brightest student in my class anymore, and I struggled to get my research to work in the early years. I learned later that this is part of the graduate experience, and one shared by many -- to learn to handle major challenges and setbacks. In the end, I carved out my own success, and I'm happy where I am,” said Ong, who was a member of Professor Steve Zimmerman’s research group as a PhD candidate.
“My research in the Z-group involved developing and synthesizing various hydrogen-bonding modules, both for application in DNA/RNA recognition and in polymer design. What I remember most is learning for the first time how truly challenging it was to do good research and coming together with your lab mates to work at solutions to the problem(s)” he explained. “Professor Zimmerman was a great mentor in helping to facilitate collaboration, both within the group and outside the group.”
Ong said he was always interested in applying his scientific knowledge to the broader world in some way.
“But it took me some time to find out that it could be the financial industry. The world changes quickly; be open-minded and opportunistic when it comes to potential career paths,” he said.
What he enjoys about his work now, he said, can be compared to research in the lab, developing a hypothesis, gathering data, and testing the hypothesis.
“The main difference is that you are testing your hypothesis in the real world and not in a controlled experiment - which has wild consequences and outcomes, both to the upside and downside,” said Ong, who has advice for current UIUC chemistry graduate students. “Don't be afraid to take risks. Not foolish risk, but well thought-out and calculated risk. It takes a long time to learn that the far bigger risk is being too conservative and end up not getting what you want.”