Biophysical Society Bulletin | January 2022

Biophysicist in Profile

Samuel Cho Area of Research:

Institution Wake Forest University

Coarse-grained and atomistic biomolecular molecular dy- namics (MD) simulations and graphics processor unit (GPU) algorithm optimization


Samuel Cho , Associate Professor of Physics and Computer Science at Wake Forest University, moved around a lot as a child, spending his longest stretches in one place in rural and suburban Maryland. His parents each emigrated from South Korea separately, then met and married in the United States before having Cho and his brother.

Samuel Cho

“Growing up, I always thought my upbringing was pretty unique, but there was recently a movie called Minari about a Korean-American family in rural America that won the Golden Globe Best Picture Award. When the trailer first came out, I thought maybe someone out there owed my family royalties,” Samuel Cho jokes. “It turns out that the movie was not all that similar to my own life, so I’m not expecting a fat check anytime soon.” His father was a construction worker. “Many times, when we drove through Tysons Corner, Virginia, my father pointed out a few high-rise buildings that he and his older brother helped build in some capacity,” he shares. Cho’s mother was a nurse, though he says, “I think it’s fair to say that she always dreamed of doing something else. In particular, she really wanted to be a naval engineer because she was excellent at math throughout her schooling. She was my first real inspira- tion for math.” While his parents were working, he was cared for by his grandmother. “She raised four children, including my mother, on her own after her husband passed away from cancer. She supported her children by making and selling the most delicious ‘dduk,’ a traditional Korean type of rice cakes, so I suppose there was a good bit of chemistry there,” he con- tinues. “My family has always had an abundance of encour- agement and support even when I struggle to explain what I do in science. I later learned that a supportive family is a great buffer for ‘imposter syndrome,’ which is pretty common in science.” One of his earliest science memories was weekly trips to the local planetarium in Frederick, Maryland with his father and brother “to see the planets in our solar system in their grand show,” he says. “For some reason, even though we kept see- ing the same exact show every time, we never got bored.” He also recalls many excellent science teachers including his high school physics teacher Mrs. Deslattes, “who helped me get college credit via her Advanced Placement course right before she retired,” he shares. “Unfortunately, I lost touch with her, which is really too bad because I know she would have been super proud to see that I ended up as a physics professor.”

In college at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Cho’s major advisor was former Biophysical Society (BPS) president Dorothy Beckett . “I was a biochemistry major, and I had just declared a computer science major, too. She asked me why I was taking computer science courses, and I simply responded: ‘for fun.’ She asked me if I ever thought about doing research and suggested that I check out Alex Mackerell at University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, and that’s how I started doing computational biophysics—a subject I didn’t even know existed,” he says. “I still continue to see Dorothy at the BPS meetings. When she introduces me, she—rightful- ly!—claims credit for getting me started in biophysics.” Cho sought out Mackerell at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy on Beckett’s suggestion and had a fruitful and inspiring research experience in his lab. Shortly after graduating, Cho married his wife Sandra, and they moved together across the country to La Jolla, California. He entered a chemistry PhD program at the University of California, San Diego. “I did research with Peter Wolynes on protein folding, binding, and aggregation using mostly coarse-grained models based on the Energy Landscape Theory, and we wrote several papers with José Onuchic and Elizabeth Komives ,” he relates. “In addition to being a great scientist of the highest caliber, Peter has an amazing sense of humor. I now repeat a good number of his jokes in my own lectures. Also, many of my papers continue to have ‘Easter eggs’ in them, and that was largely because of Peter who encouraged it,” he says. “In fact, one of our papers has a quote from one of the Dirty Harry movies that somehow got through the editors. We were not always successful getting our Easter eggs past the editors, but it was always fun trying.” He also enjoyed working with Yaakov Levy , then a postdoc with Wolynes and Onuchic, and Diego Ferreiro , then a postdoc with Wolynes and Komives. “One of my proudest accomplish- ments as a graduate student during that time, which I still cite on my CV, is a university-wide Graduate TA Excellence Award thanks to my experience in Katja Lindenberg ’s Physical Chem-

January 2022



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