Researcher profile: Felix Ho

He wants to give a new perspective on learning

His passion for chemistry once took Felix Ho to Europe from the other side of the world. But today, he is as strongly motivated by higher education issues as by research. “If I can bridge the gap between disciplinary research and discipline-based education research, I would be very happy.”

Few wear as many hats within Uppsala University as Felix Ho and his list of duties is constantly growing. New chair of MINT, a centre for discipline-based education research. Representative in a group working on the University's new language policy. Member of the advisory council for teaching facilities at the new Ångström Laboratory. Other work in progress include various local and international research and development projects within higher education.

In addition, Felix Ho is also docent and senior lecturer in chemistry and conducts research on the movements of electrons and protons within photosynthesis. On top of that, he teaches. How does he do it?

“I think I manage to do less than I want to,” says Felix Ho and laughs. “Sure, it can be stressful; I constantly feel slightly guilty about everything I don’t have time to get done. Having a lot of commitments makes it necessary to prioritize and plan, and focus your efforts on what you believe will have the best impact given the time you can put in.”

In January 2018, he stepped down from his role as one of two directors of studies at the Department of Chemistry - Ångström, a position he had held for six years. Having the main responsibility for educational and teaching development, Felix Ho went to conferences where he met with researchers in educational research and learnt a tremendous amount along the way.

“I also started to get involved in different international research collaborations within discipline-based education research. Thanks to those contacts, I’ve had the chance to work on various projects with researchers in Sweden and abroad.”

Recently, he completed the project RACE, RAw Communication & Engagement, within the framework of the innovation initiative EIT Raw Materials, which is funded by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology and part of the EU framework programme Horizon 2020. The collaboration with universities in Ireland, Finland, and in Spain focused on education and sustainable development, with a particular emphasis on science communication with the general public. All of the universities held PhD courses in which participants had to give presentations as part of the examination.

"I think the project was very successful. Some of our students who attended the course later gave demonstrations to school pupils visiting the Department of Organic Chemistry at the Biomedical Centre. The doctoral students turned out to be much better at reaching out to students and explaining their research. They became much better at taking the pupils’ interests and background into account when talking to them, and also how their presentations should be designed and carried out,” says Felix Ho. 

In December, two other course participants organised an outreach event, Beer & Science, at a pub in Uppsala, where they presented their research within genetic disorders as well as lithium batteries. The result: a packed-out venue and a spellbound audience from an unusually wide range of backgrounds.

"It's clear that these students now have grown in their skills and self-confidence, something that also motivates them to engage in similar activities in the future."

Another one of his motivations is to give teachers better educational support. Felix Ho is responsible for the new initiative of the Faculty of Science and Technology to improve the use of instructional technology. According to him, many teachers encounter a big threshold getting started.

“A major obstacle is the lack of time and support available, both technical and pedagogical. At the moment, teachers have to do everything themselves if they want to try something new: find out what tools exist, learn how to master the technology both technically and pedagogically, find resources to purchase licenses, test and perhaps fail a few times, develop teaching material, troubleshoot when things don't work and so on,” says Felix Ho.

One of the solutions he suggests is a comprehensive infrastructure of technical and educational support in the form of an IT and campus management team in combination with experienced users throughout the University. He has plans for a user and expert database where teachers can get help with for example feedback tools, technical systems or computer programs.

“The important thing is to not just focus on technical gadgets for their own sake. “What is crucial is that technology is used to help students learn. There are actually quite a few teachers who can act as mentors and experts, they just have to be aware of each other's existence.”

So what is the key to successful teaching? A successful strategy is not easy to describe in detail, according to Felix Ho. But there are certain things that work: showing dedication and interest in the subject matter as well as the students, making sure there is time for interaction and discussions, promoting and encouraging reflection.

“In natural sciences and engineering it’s easy to get stuck on just calculating number after number. But do students know what the numbers mean, what they’re actually say? Equations model systems and phenomena, and describe relationships between variables. It’s therefore important to ask the question whether your answers are reasonable, given the problem at hand. Teachers must try to help students develop that ability to instinctively ask such control questions,” says Felix Ho.

He is grateful for his earlier university studies in law that gave him a thorough training in analysing different perspectives and approaches, as well as to argue and justify different interpretations.

“That habit of checking whether you’ve really covered everything, that’s definitely influenced my approach to pedagogy, also within chemistry. Together with my colleagues Maja Elmgren and Leif Hammarström, I’ve developed class workshops where students get to discuss various concepts within chemistry and not just count, and they have been very much appreciated.”

Ever since a young age, Felix Ho has enjoyed teaching and studying chemistry. At school he used to help his classmates with their homework. The subject of chemistry was the most fun: exciting and logical. When he was ten years old, the family moved from Hong Kong to Australia.

“Competition was fierce over places in education in Hong Kong in the 80’s. My parents were adamant about my sister and I having the opportunity to pursue further studies. Not that they needed to push us, I was very interested in school and liked to study. Not only the natural sciences but also languages and social sciences.”

A teacher who made a great impression on him was his chemistry teacher in high school, Mrs. Libby Davies. She had previously worked at a state research institute, but had been forced to quit her job when she got married. In 70’s Australia, married women were not expected to have a career but rather become housewives and take care of their children, according to Felix Ho. But Libby Davies changed careers and became a teacher in chemistry instead.

“She was so dedicated, knowledgeable and she really wanted to support us. The last day of school, when she was going to say goodbye to us, she started to cry. When we wondered why, she said she felt she hadn’t taught us enough. It didn’t help that we tried to convince her that she had taught us more than we could have hoped for. She was really so concerned about our well-being.”

After high school, Felix Ho began to study chemistry and law at the University of New South Wales. He did an exchange semester in Canada and then moved to Cambridge, England, where he eventually earned a doctorate in bio-analytical chemistry. He was not, however, ready to return to Australia and wanted to continue exploring spectroscopic techniques. A former supervisor put him in contact with Professor Stenbjörn Styring who was just about to move to Uppsala University.

“In 2004, I became a post-doc in Uppsala and began working with EPR, Electron Paramagnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, which is Stenbjörn's main method for studying photosynthesis. The research involves measuring the processes taking place during the splitting of water into hydrogen and oxygen inside the protein complex photosystem II in plants and other photosynthetic organisms. This mechanism is so fascinating. I like to find out how reactions take place, how electrons and protons are moving and how it happens at the molecular level,” says Felix Ho.

Nowadays he is rarely in the lab; the research work takes place in front of the computer where he does simulations and analyses data, coordinates research collaborations and writes articles. He teaches in theory 20 percent of his time, but suspects it is more. He also holds courses within TUR, The Council for Educational Development at the Faculty of Science and Technology, of which he is a member.

“I feel very fortunate to have come in at this time. There have been many pioneers before me who have developed the University's educational activities, and worked in many, many years behind the scenes, without getting as much attention. It’s because of everyone who has supported me that I’m here and am able to work with so many different things.”

Anneli Björkman