”Class with RVL was about making Jesus come alive to me— that He’s a real person who has real things to say to me. That I should expect to hear God speaking into my life.
Connections Fall 2020 Alumni Profile
Cheri Ackerman ’07 is refreshing living proof that faith, joy, science, and wonder are compatible. Maybe even that they belong together.
You may have read about Dr. Cheri Ackerman ’07 in a few newspapers back in May of 2020, when her co-authored paper entitled “Massively multiplexed nucleic acid detection with Cas13” was published to much acclaim in Nature—the world’s leading multidisciplinary science journal, that is an honor for anyone to get published in, but especially as the first author listed. Her paper presented a new technology that can accurately and rapidly test over 1000 individuals at once for a virus like COVID-19—news that is especially exciting in the thick of quarantines and shutdowns.
The new diagnostic technology, called CARMEN (Combinatorial Arrayed Reactions for Multiplexed Evaluation of Nucleic acids), can also test one individual’s blood sample for over 160 different viruses all at once, using a “kChip,” a clear and flexible microfluidic “chip” about the size of a small CD case, so patients could find out exactly and quickly which viruses are making them sick.
It’s biotechnology that Cheri helped create as a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard for the last couple of years. It’s obviously useful medical research that she and her team were excited to do, and its incredible value has only skyrocketed since the global COVID-19 pandemic started.
“I was honed for that [postdoc] position—I was really good at it. It was super fun, and by God’s grace I was really successful,” Cheri said matter-of-factly, then running through her educational history after Holland Christian: double majors in Spanish and biochemistry at Calvin University, her PhD in chemical biology from the University of California-Berkeley, completed with a full ride Hertz Fellowship. Then postdoctoral work with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
But believe it or not—there’s even more exciting news now. Because what do you do with your very smart self after you finish your postdoc? Most people in her position would go into academia, seeking an elite, tenured, though potentially lonely professorship somewhere. Instead, Cheri stayed in Boston to start Concerto Biosciences, a startup where she now works as CEO, and is learning on the fly how to market to potential investors—with zero business experience covered in her previous 27+ years of education.
“I have no idea how to do this, but honestly, it’s really energizing,” she said laughing. “In praying about it, I felt God saying, ‘You are made for either [academia or Concerto]. Success is not guaranteed in either one, but I will be with you whatever you do. Neither is outside my wish for you.”
Plus she really likes the team of four that she started the company with, and saw how clearly they would be working in this together. They’re “so smart, talented, so motivated!” she said. “Their willingness to trust me as well—that you are the right person to carry this vision forward, to lead us and shape us, create our team culture—is a very powerful and rare thing!”
Concerto is a biotech company that uses the same kChip from CARMEN and applies it to probiotics, or microbiome therapeutics, looking to discover new therapies for diseases by using various random mixes of bacteria. They’re planning to start with eczema, a disease that infects over 200 million globally, and costs over $5 billion to the American economy.
“There’s this vague notion that probiotics are good for you, but the science is still growing,” Cheri explained. “The world is an exciting place—we know that there’s more to learn in this field. Just like in science, this is a hypothesis that we’re trying to test, but in business—you have a hypothesis about who wants your product. We’re trying to address all the risks with as little money as possible.”
She never really imagined back in middle school or high school she would be doing what she’s doing now. “In high school I was pretty set on being a doctor. When I was in middle school there was a Tsunami in Bangladesh, and I remember feeling so stuck. Old enough to want to make a difference, but not old enough to be able to make a difference. But business? No!” she smiled.
It’s that winsome mix of seeing her amazing brain as a gift from the Lord given to serve others, along with the humility to appreciate how others have shaped her, and her sheer delight in God’s elegantly designed world that make Cheri a poster child for Christian education—besides a fascinating person to talk to. You believe her that this Concerto upstart is not only possible, but you follow her delight in getting to be the person uncovering God’s intricate designs and handing it to us for healing.
Oh, and add a sense of humor, to laugh even at herself.
“In high school I was really smart, and bad at being really smart,” she laughed. “I was too serious—people just want to have fun in high school, and I didn’t get that back in high school—I was like can we just talk about science, math, and ideas?”
”There’s this vague notion that probiotics are good for you, but the science is still growing. The world is an exciting place...
”The Christian life was not meant to be walked alone—we’re in this together—our faith is a shared faith...
That being said, Cheri definitely gives credit to past teachers, tracing back present day loves to HC days. At Calvin, Cheri majored in both Spanish and biochemistry, and claims the Spanish stems from first grade at HC, when Miss Scholten was her teacher: “She was amazing. She taught us all of the colors and numbers in Spanish. I really fell in love with the Spanish language starting already at age six thanks to her.”
The 8th grade Isle Royale trip that she took with Mr. Dewey was “life changing,” and the first time she ever backpacked—now a favorite pastime, with traipsing unhindered for days throughout the Sierras one of her favorite things to do.
And sophomore biology with Julie (Bredeweg) O’Brien “changed my life—it was super formative for me!” she said, remembering how learning one day that DNA changes to RNA, which changes to protein blew her world. Plus, “there’s a woman crushing it in science—who understood really cool things about the world and taught them to us.”
Then there were AP English with Mark Hiskes, and Discipleship Class and Israel trip with Ray VanderLaan: “Both were really good about exploring who do you want to be in this world, what do you want to be building and putting your energy into in this life. Who are you building for, why those things.”
But really, she appreciated any HC teachers “willing to engage the full force of my brain, who were not intimidated by my brain, not frustrated when I got done too early, but thought ‘Let her take it to the next level,’ and encouraged that exploration,” she said.
Cheri also appreciates the intentional spiritual teachings she had at HC, and that have played out valuably throughout her life so far. The Discipleship class with RVL was “really about making Jesus come alive to me— that He’s a real person who has real things to say to me about who I am, what I do in the world. That I should expect to hear God speaking into my life.
“That call to have your faith touch every part of your life is really strong at HC,” Cheri added, while recognizing first hand it’s not always easy for Christians to thrive solo in the variety of academic situations she’s been in. “There’s something about Christians holding Christians up in these more adversarial situations,” she said. “The Christian life was not meant to be walked alone—we’re in this together—our faith is a shared faith and a new context puts new pressure on your faith, so having a community around you is incredibly important to walk through that with you.”
In Cheri’s day-to-day life now, she’s hitting the streets— virtually and literally—for Concerto investors, selling not only a product, but a creation that can improve people’s lives, and is trusting God will see her through. That He created her and made her who she is for this very time, and for this very purpose.
For further information on Cheri’s research from this spring, read her Nature publication at nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2279-8, or watch her Calvin interview on the topic at calvin.edu/news/archive/calvin-alumresponds-to-the-pandemic-with-innovative-diagnostics.