Esther Woo ’20: Exploring Food Systems and Community, One Sourdough Loaf at a Time

When Esther Woo ’20 was a student at Saint Mary’s, many knew them for impacting air quality measurement at the College. Since then, Woo, who majored in Biochemistry and minored in Justice, Community, and Leadership, has picked up a rich new research interest while at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability: sourdough bread. 

“My research is on sourdough bread. I’m looking at the locality and the sustainability efforts behind local sourdough bakeries,” described Woo. “So, what sourdough bread brings is a very interesting aspect of culture.”

Woo started baking sourdough as a hobby during COVID-19, when an SMC Chemistry professor shared some of their sourdough starter. Since then, Woo’s interest in sourdough evolved into a master’s thesis project linking food systems and their connections to communities. “I had to move back home in 2020, during my last semester of undergrad. That left me itching for some kind of exploration with chemistry in my life, which ended up being sourdough bread. It kind of just took off from there. Fast-forward a year later: I got to spend my summers staging (shadowing) at all these bakeries and learning a lot about the trade. I interviewed bakers, and they shared stores about how knowledge is passed down from generations with sourdough bread.”

In their research, Woo interviewed 32 bakers and visited 13 bakeries in metro Detroit and San Francisco to understand how food production connects to community and culture. “Going into it, I didn't realize how much sourdough was going to be a huge component of local communal culture. In my thesis, I’m talking a lot about gender/power dynamics and also political views, which are huge topics in today’s climate, especially with bakeries. There’s a slogan called, ‘Baking for Change,’ so [I’m] thinking about the ways in which bakers influence you when you walk into a bakery setting; do you see any flags or banners, and based on those values and the baker’s values, how are they influencing the ways in which you'd view the world and feeding into the capitalistic society?”

“A lot of the bakeries that I interviewed would also do a lot of community outreach,” described Woo. “They would donate proceeds to different local charities, like the Black Lives Matter movement, or when those nationally covered Asian hate crimes were happening in the summer of 2021, they were very quick to take a public stance and donate to associated organizations Knowing the values of sourdough bakers is what really drew me into trying to see what is in this little microcosm, and how we could expand that into the greater universe and connect our food to every aspect of our lives, including our values ”

Woo credited Saint Mary’s tight-knit environment for helping them build the necessary connections to conduct their master’s thesis at the University of Michigan. “What Saint Mary’s really leveraged is relationship building. Even at such a big institution now, I was always very intentional about having one-on-one connections with my professors and with my peers. And I think that was very helpful because when you’re going to a big institution like the University of Michigan, you really want to have those valuable connections to build professional relationships. I have a close connection with my undergraduate professors, and that has helped me establish a close relationship with my graduate school professors.”

Woo also described how the Seminar Program prepared them to lead and stand out in a graduate program at such a large university. “I know that [my seminar experience] helped me because when I was in graduate classes and was expected to participate in deep discussions, I was like, ‘I’ve done this so many times before. I can easily lead a class.’ But then you also had other students that came from really big universities that never really had that one-on-one time to lead a class because they were always in giant lecture halls. So, I think that really was helpful for me, thinking back to my experience at Saint Mary’s.”

Woo shared how Chemistry Professor Joel Burley played a significant role in shaping their research interests. In the summer of 2019, Woo conducted research on the social justice implication of air pollution with Burley, whom Woo first met after sitting in on his Chemistry class at an overnight admitted student event. “Under the guidance of Dr. Joel Burley, these research ideas discussed during office hours one day were made into reality,” said Woo. 

“Through all of that, I was challenged to figure out what is the role of science in relation to humans and had the opportunity to explore the environmental justice parts, which I really appreciated because I felt lost in Biochemistry, if I’m being honest. I was studying all these things and I was like, ‘Great, but what does this molecule have to do with the actual people that it’s affecting? And so, environmental justice was the way for me to connect the hard sciences to the social sciences, by connecting issues of access, equity, and justice.”

Most recently, Woo was approved to publish a children’s book with fellow Saint Mary’s alum Tegan Stuart ’19. “We did an art residency together in Ireland, and Stuart is a super skilled and talented illustrator. So, now we’re collaborating on creating some kind of learning children’s book, and talking about the ways in which we show kids how we’re related to our foods.”

As Woo nears the end of their thesis-writing, they plan to build on the theme of community by exploring how identity impacts the way children learn about the sciences. Woo will be starting a PhD in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University in the fall. “Through this program, I’m hoping to examine science curriculum through the intersectional lens of identity. So, talking about the different identities that we bring into the classroom space and how that influences the way in which we view the world.”

Woo previously developed their passion for food justice while volunteering in Saint Mary’s Legacy Garden and participating in the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action’s MICAH Fellowship. Woo hopes to combine this passion with their expertise in chemistry and environmental science to help make science education more accessible and inclusive.

“As much as I hope someone would read my 50 page [thesis], it’s not very approachable to the average [person]. The cool way to get around that is trying to find ways in which we’re able to utilize that research and put it in different spaces and mediums so that it’s accessible to all. I think what’s most important to me is that all my research is approachable to anyone regardless of their educational background, because the work I’m doing is grounded in people.”

learn more about summer research