From Refugee Camp to Lab Bench

New Merrimack College lecturer Cheng Her’s inspirational journey led him to the forefront of researching drug products’ impact on the immune system.

Cheng Her, lecturer in the Department of Biology.

In the face of unconscionable circumstances, Cheng Her’s parents never lost sight of their dreams for their son.

The family was displaced during the Vietnam War, and Her was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. His family’s life and his parents’ education were upended. But that would not happen for Her and his siblings.

“The U.S. doctors and soldiers there often spoke about how important education was, which became my parents’ focus for our future,” said Her, who joined the Merrimack College Department of Biology as a lecturer this fall. “When we were able to immigrate to the U.S. as a family, my parents both worked multiple jobs to see that dream fulfilled. And now my siblings and I are all first-generation college graduates.”

Her began his post-secondary education at Assumption College in Worcester, with the hopes of eventually becoming a doctor. But when he took an anatomy and physiology course, he realized the passion wasn’t there. It was out of pure interest that in his junior year, he signed up for a biochemistry course focused on proteins.

“Everything clicked,” Her said. “That applied research class changed my career focus to biochemistry.”

A lover of classic rock, including Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Her credits one of his professors at Assumption for tapping into that love to help him better understand lessons. Her said he struggled memorizing information, made more difficult by the fact English is not his first language. So his professor would build a lesson plan for him around a classic rock song and change the lyrics to subject material.

“I would listen to it, which would be much more palatable than reading a textbook for six hours and being bored after the first 30 minutes,” Her noted. “I could hear the song and lyrics and later pull up a fact more easily. He was someone who made a difference in my academic success.”

Her went on to earn a doctorate degree in biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Skaggs School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado. His research focuses primarily on drug products and their impact on immune systems. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he worked at the FDA analyzing drug product characteristics that may be important in eliciting an immunological response.

As he settles into the Merrimack community, Her said he is looking forward to working with undergraduate students, helping them realize their academic interests and inspire the next generation of scientists.

“My advice to undergraduate students is college should be a time to explore academically,” Her said. “Take classes that interest you, even if they’re not in your major, and start early. Don’t wait until your junior or senior year.”