Friend, mentor, and part–time food enthusiast, Jerry Gao (E '23) dove headfirst into the Penn community the first day he set foot on campus. He radiates pure joy while discussing his work as a bioengineering TA, revealing his passion for both teaching and learning. Though most Penn students seem to have a myriad of activities padding their resumes, Jerry leaves a lasting impact on every community he's immersed himself in at Penn. Whether in the bioengineering lab, teaching young kids how to read, or cheffing it up for his hometown friends, Jerry sprinkles love into all of his endeavors.
Name: Jerry Gao
Hometown: Coppell, Texas
Major: Bioengineering with a minor in Asian American Studies
Can you tell me a little bit about what brought you to Penn?
That’s a great question. My sister, who's five years older than me came to Penn, and I remember visiting her during my junior year of high school. I landed and Uber–ed all the way in and thought, “Where the heck am I?” She said, “It's fine, tell the person at the front gate that you're here. They already know everything.” I remember opening the door and there were 20 to 30 people in her room—all just screaming surprise for me. I remember thinking, “Who the hell are all of you?”
I was so surprised and shocked that they were here to celebrate, not even their friend, but their friend’s sibling. I think that moment showed me how at Penn people really care about each other. People really care to make relationships and make friendships; I found the balance super unique. That day in March of my junior year was the moment where I was like, this seems like a place that I can call home.
Now that you’re on your way to graduating, what have been your favorite classes or experiences in Bioengineering or Asian American Studies?
In terms of bioengineering, there's definitely a clear favorite that I have. It's actually the class I'm a TA for right now. It's "Bioengineering Modeling, Analysis, and Design," and it's basically the lab that all junior bioengineers take. There’s one particular lab we do in the class that always catches everyone's attention; it’s called the cockroach lab. I think it’s one of the biggest reasons why people want to study bioengineering at Penn in particular.
It's a segue into prosthetics and different medical devices that can help restore people's limb functions. We order hundreds of cockroaches and then we put them in a little bit of an ice bath to anesthetize. We amputate their legs, which will essentially serve as our prosthetics, and then implant metal electrodes into two different spots of the leg. Then, we go into our computer program and type different lines of code that can help replicate different signal waves to move the legs. If you submit a wave with a particular frequency and particular amplitude, it'll cause a leg to move in one direction, and if you do a different combination of the amplitude and frequency, it'll cause it to move in the other direction. The next task is to trace the end of the leg and try to choreograph the leg to spell the letters B and E for bioengineering. It’s so fun to be able to see what combination of leg movements in the servo motor can form the backbone of the B for example, what can form the three lines of the E. I would say that's probably my favorite moment in the bioengineering department.
What’s your favorite class you’ve had in the Asian American Studies department?
One of my favorite classes is on Asian American entrepreneurship, taught by Dr. Rupa Pillai. She’s a wonderful professor. The class explores the validity of the American dream with regard to the Asian American experience. We looked at Asian American businesses—their successes and failures in assimilating into the American economy. One of my favorite aspects of the class was that it was an ABCS course, and we were able to interview and partner with different restaurants and vendors in the Philly area. We also partnered with the Philadelphia Asian Chamber of Commerce. It was our job to bridge these different communities and connect with the Penn Procurement System Service here.
We embraced these three communities to try to increase the number of Asian American suppliers that are used at Penn—whether it's vending, catering for food service, purchasing furniture for classes, or using different IT services that are Asian American owned. That experience was really enlightening, because we presented to members of Penn Procurement Systems, the Asian Chamber of Commerce, and different business owners in the Philadelphia area, showing them our findings and building lasting partnerships. I think that was the first time I got to really engage directly with Asian American businesses and try to integrate them into what we have here on campus.
Now that we're discussing personal impacts, tell us about your interest in cooking and your food Instagram account @gaos_chows.
@gaos_chows really started over quarantine when I was bored out of my mind. I hadn't seen a lot of my friends, so I wanted an excuse to connect with my friends. I figured, “What better way than food?” It's the ultimate uniter. Everyone loves food! Everyone loves to enjoy different treats and goodies. I ended up going to the grocery store, and I started with a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe. Then, as I was, baking, I said to myself, “This feels exactly like my Intro to Chemistry Lab.” From there it was pretty easy. It was just like doing science, and it was really, really fun.
I ended up packaging it all up and delivering it to all my friends. Funny enough, I've never actually tried any of my food, because I'll take a picture of it and then I just give it to my friends right afterward. At this point, it's become a tradition. Every single break I text each of my friends and ask, “Are you going to be home tonight?” Obviously out of context, my message sounds a little ominous, a little mysterious. But now my friends know what I mean almost every single time I send that text, and I just get an all–caps response: “YES.” Now I have a list of people I make food for every single break, and I've optimized the route to know exactly what time I'll arrive at each place by leaving at a particular time. It's really fun and I think one of the best things about cooking is that it's always a new challenge.
I feel like I'm never making the same thing twice which makes it so exciting for me. Although I haven’t posted on the account in a while, and at this point, it feels like my comeback post has to be the perfect thing.
How do you juggle so many different interests while being such a present member of your clubs on campus?
I think Penn Face for me was really awful. My first semester, I thought that I had everything under control. I thought high school was a walk in the park, and I remember when I took CIS 110, at first I didn’t think it was too bad. I just didn’t go to class, and I thought that I knew everything. Then I took the midterm and scored a good two standard deviations below every single exam in that class. That was a big hit to my confidence. A lot of my friends around me seemed to be doing incredibly well in their classes. I've managed to get past that stage by looking at myself holistically and I recognize that, sure, coding is not my forte. I will never be able to write a quality "for loop" for the rest of my life. But that's okay, because there are so many other aspects of life that not only am I better at, but I definitely take more pride in doing.
For example, I really enjoy being able to foster relationships and have meaningful discussions with people. It doesn't matter if I get a C or a D in a class; those grades will never invalidate the experiences I have outside of the classroom. I love being able to teach other people and even though you'll never catch me being able to do any sort of object–oriented programming, I love being able to teach a second grader how to differentiate between different vowel sounds and teaching different linguistic patterns so that they can excel and read chapter books going into third and fourth grade. I’ve learned to prioritize what I value and understand that I'm not going to be great at everything. I’m proud of myself for being good at what I am good at and continuing to pursue those passions.
It seems like you’ve got the meaning of life figured out! So, I'm curious, what's next after Penn?
I took a gap semester and I'm submatriculating into the master's program to get my master's in bioengineering. So, those are my short–term plans. In terms of long–term plans, I have no clue which path is going to be correct for me. I've started to go more with the flow and accept that there's no GPS to life that’s telling me to turn left in ten weeks or to take a U–turn in a year. At the end of the day, you have to keep going and see where things take you.
Eventually, I want to be some sort of educator. I want to come back to Penn Graduate School of Education and try to either get my master’s or Ph.D. in education. I love learning about the psychology of our brains and learning how to teach effectively. I think that is definitely my longer–term future where I certainly see myself being a professor or a teacher in different countries.
Lightning Round Questions:
Best place to eat in Philly?
Huge fan of Zahav.
Best place to study?
I got really sick of it last semester, but I have to go with Tangen Hall.
Summer. I think I always come out of summer break like a new person in almost always a good way.
Best Children's Book.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
There are two types of people at Penn…
The ones who are masters of Sink or Swim and the ones who prefer to go to bed by 10 p.m.
And you are?
Definitely the latter. I go to the first Sink or Swim of every semester, and I call it a success.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.