Alice Cheung in lab

Alice Y. Cheung

UMass Amherst Distinguished Professor Alice Y. Cheung is an internationally renowned researcher studying plant reproduction, with implications for global agriculture.

Flowering plants are an essential part of the global food supply, the source of grains and numerous fruit and vegetable crops. Yet their vitality is threatened by the effects of climate change and other environmental damage caused by humans. Understanding plant biology, and how plants reproduce, is critical to addressing these challenges in addition to ongoing climate change mitigation efforts.  

A biochemist and molecular biologist by training, Alice Cheung’s interest in plant biology was first sparked in graduate school when she learned about how a particular soil bacterium could transfer its DNA into plant cells to introduce new properties to plants. This emerging concept at the time is the basis of current technology to generate genetically modified plants.

“I found this spectacular molecular biological system extremely exciting and understood how useful it could be,” Cheung recalled. “I was in the right place at the right time to be part of this exciting research.” 

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Cheung came to the United States for college, earning a bachelor’s degree at Smith College and a PhD at Yale University. After completing post-doctoral training at Harvard University and serving on the faculty at Yale, she joined the UMass Amherst Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 1997, where today she is a distinguished professor.

Alice Cheung in lab

Plant biology is a very broad field and, not being a formally trained plant biologist, Cheung found herself continually drawn to areas new and intriguing to her. Another turning point came in the late 1980s when she began learning about plant reproduction—the process by which flowering plants produce seeds and, ultimately, generate new plants. At the time, little was known about this extraordinarily complex process and, once again, Cheung was well-positioned to make an impact. Through her research, she has developed the means to explain the molecular mechanisms of key steps in how the sperm-bearing pollen communicates with the egg-bearing female organ, the pistil, to enable fertilization. This, in turn, has enabled her lab and others to begin manipulating reproductive barriers between species, with the ultimate goal of enhancing plant qualities.

Cheung is internationally renowned for her groundbreaking research, which utilizes cell biological, biochemical, molecular, and biophysical approaches. She has authored over 100 publications, many of high impact, and her trailblazing work—supported by organizations including the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, among others—has received over 10,000 citations. 

While Cheung’s research began by exploring the basic principles of plant reproduction, in recent years it has advanced to directly addressing real-world challenges. As Cheung explained, “Plant growth itself is highly impacted by climatic extremes, and soil conditions are often adverse for growth.” In a study published in early 2024 in Cell, the research group led by Cheung and long-time collaborator and husband Hen-Ming Wu (research professor in the UMass Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) demonstrated how research in fundamental principles could potentially translate into improving the resilience of plants so they can better withstand the climatic extremes and environmental damage they are facing.  

Every discovery opens up new opportunities for more research questions to explore.

Alice Cheung, distinguished professor of biochemistry and molecular biology

The group’s research has potential implications for engineering other desirable traits in crops. For example, in a study published in Nature, Cheung, Wu, and former postdoc Qiaohong Duan (now a professor in Shandong Agricultural University, China) demonstrated how interspecies' reproductive compatibility systems could be manipulated in plants in the Brassicaceae family, which includes vegetable crops such as cabbage, broccoli, and rabe. This research opens the door to one day create vegetables that hold all the same nutritional benefits but with other added value, like more resistant to diseases or perhaps even offering a more appealing taste.

Cheung’s research has continually evolved over her career, and she finds her passion for her subject remains strong. 

“Every discovery opens up new opportunities for more research questions to explore,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.”

As a cell biologist, Cheung loves “being able to see cellular phenomena unfolding in front of my eyes under a microscope. I think there is a learning process associated with seeing something in real time, and it stimulates new questions in your mind, or inspires ideas to solve a problem.”

For her research and contributions to the community of plant biology researchers, Cheung was elected a fellow of the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), the largest plant biology disciplinary society in the world. In 2020, she was awarded one of the society’s highest honors, the Lawrence Bogorad Award for Excellence in Plant Biology. She is also an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a founding member of the ASPB Legacy Society, which works to nurture future generations of plant biologists.

At UMass, Cheung has mentored scores of students, including more than 100 undergraduates. She welcomes undergraduates with a wide range of interests and career goals to her lab, shares her own passion for learning, and trains them in how to ask scientific questions and solve problems—skills valuable for any future pursuits. Cheung imparts her hard-earned wisdom with her graduate students and postdocs: that to excel is not easy. “It is crucial not to be overwhelmed by weaknesses but just learn enough to get past them so you can focus your energy on developing your strengths,” she said. “Commit to jobs well done and finding joy in your work.”

Reflecting on her own scientific career, Cheung said, “I pour my heart into doing everything I do, so I count myself lucky to have landed in a field that fascinates me and continuously open doors for me to learn. I am glad that my efforts have contributed to advancing my field. But I know all along, I will value most having been able to influence and open doors for my students and ease their paths.” 

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