Anita Wo receives Strive Award from Women's Resource Center


As a fourth-year graduate student, Anita Wo is focused more than ever on her research that involves using gold nanoparticles (AuNPs) as a platform to investigate molecular interactions at the nano-bio interface. But she has been a constant advocate of diversity, inclusion and wellness initiatives since her first year in the PhD program.

In March, she was invited to the 4th Annual Strive Awards ceremony sponsored by the Women’s Resources Center. The Strive Awards are a celebration of the gender equity work and activism being done by students, faculty, and staff on the Illinois campus. Wo received the Advocate Award, "given to a faculty member, staff member, or student who consistently 'walks the walk' and advocates for gender equity in their everyday lives."

Chemistry graduate student Katie Greskovich nominated her lab mate and friend. Wo said she was very honored to receive the award, because it serves as a reminder that everyday actions matter and have lasting impacts.

“Advocating for progress in gender equity is critical for fostering inclusive environments and I feel very appreciative that my efforts are being recognized. I am extremely grateful to have been nominated for the award by my lab mate and friend, Katie Greskovich. It means the world to me to work alongside colleagues who genuinely uplift and celebrate one another’s successes,” Wo said.

Last semester, Wo was recognized for her efforts to promote diversity and inclusion within the Department of Chemistry when she received the 2022 Inclusive Leadership Award during the Gender Equity and Inclusion in the Chemical Sciences (GEICS) conference on Aug. 20, 2022.

Wo said she was involved in diversity and inclusion efforts since she was an undergraduate but has taken on a larger role at Illinois. Being an advocate for others who also have marginalized identities is important to her, she said.

“It has always been important for me to advocate for others to make sure their voices are heard,” said Wo, who has been very involved with multiple graduate student organizations on campus as a member and in leadership roles, including the Women Chemists Committee and the Student Wellness Coalition.

Wo grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, where she first got excited about science in her elementary school with a teacher who very actively promoted STEM, getting the students involved very week in a science experiment.

“It just got me so excited to be very hands on and ask why does this work, and I just kept asking questions,” Wo said.

Her interest in chemistry developed when she went to Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

“In college I had some wonderful chemistry professors. I loved the way they taught, and it made so much sense, and they were open to answering questions,” Wo said. “I really connected very well with the chemistry program at Wellesley.”

Two of her chemistry professors were Illinois chemistry alumni, David R. Haines, (PhD, ’81, Leonard) and Nolan T. Flynn (PhD, ’01, Zimmerman).

Inspired by her college professors, who encouraged her to apply to graduate school and continue on her path of scientific curiosity, Wo decided to pursue her PhD and ultimately chose Illinois.

“My professors had a lot of good things to say about the program when they were students here, and when I visited, I liked the community of students here and found them welcoming and honest and I got the general sense that I would be supported by my peers,” she said.

She chose Prof. Catherine Murphy’s research group, because she really liked the work that was being done.

“It was the science that resonated with me the most. I could see the big picture…,” said Wo, who listed going out to lunch with her lab mates every Friday as one of the best things about her research group. “It’s a team building activity that we do, so I always look forward to that.”

Due to the interdisciplinary nature of Wo’s research involving gold nanoparticles (AuNPs), she said she has gained experience using various instrumental techniques and enjoyed taking advantage of the state-of-the-art core facilities on the Illinois campus.

The goal of her research is to gain a better understanding of protein epitopes displayed on the AuNP surface in order to predict biological outcomes.

“A good portion of my day-to-day work involves the synthesis and robust characterization of AuNPs with various surface functionalizations,” she explained.

After graduate school, Wo said she is interested in a career in science policy and continuing advocacy work in relation to science.

“I still want to be involved in science in some way. I think science is just really cool,” said Wo, who credits the people she has me in Chemistry at Illinois as the best part of her PhD experience.

“The people here are really great. They help me get through the everyday hardships and challenges and I get a lot of support from my peers here,” said Wo, who added that another best thing about PhD life in chemistry is that little moment of excitement when you see if an experiment has worked.

“I also love talking to my lab mates about science and working out problems and seeking out others’ expertise. It feels very rewarding to find that last piece of the puzzle that fits. I really like puzzles,” said Wo, who also enjoys puzzles outside the lab.

She also enjoys trying new recipes.

“I’m a chemist in the kitchen,” said Wo, whose favorite places to go are on campus. “I love the arboretum. Just generally the campus is really cool. I like taking walks, exploring the different buildings, the architecture.”