(The long version, essentially an autobiography)
The Early Years (1995-2005)
I was born in Chicago, Illinois to two Chinese-American immigrant parents. In escaping the horrors of communism, and lured by the promise of the American Dream, my mother and father immigrated to the United States for a shot at a better life. The simple, yet powerful notion that individuals and their families are in charge of their own destinies, was an inspiring and stark contrast to the dogma instilled back home. They worked whatever jobs they could find — dishwashing, janitorial work in the back of restaurants, and mere clerical work if lucky — in order to save up enough money to go back to school and earn the credentials they needed to launch their own careers. To this day, I am thankful for them and the sacrifices that they have made in affording me the privileges I enjoy today.
And that’s where I came in. Born in the city to a family in a diverse, working class neighborhood in the South Side, we were no strangers to what I would eventually come to know as the social determinants of health — poverty, food deserts and insecurity, gang violence, lead exposure, industrial waste and pollution. Living paycheck to paycheck, we were fortunate to merely have food on the table, and went about our lives day to day, hoping that there were no emergencies that would arise, as this would have broken us. Eventually, during my primary school years, we had saved up enough money to move away from the city into various suburbs. It wasn’t hard to see the contrast between the communities, and it certainly didn’t take long to realize that, for people without a solid socioeconomic foundation, leading a “healthy lifestyle” (as we so often tell our patients) frequently takes a back seat.
Escaping the Cycle (2006-2014)
But if there was one crucial value my family instilled in me, it was the value of an education and the doors it would open — an opportunity to escape the infamous cycle that keeps people within the confines of their socioeconomic disposition. From a young age, I developed a love for learning, largely through reading. Because we could not afford to buy own own books, I would frequent the library, heading straight for the non-fiction section. I hated fiction, wanting instead to learn about “the real world.” I would alternate topics each time I went to check out a new book — US history one week, something in the natural sciences the next week, etc.
To this day, I still carry a large part of that “jack of all trades” mentality. It was never enough for me to be knowledgeable in one area — I wanted to be well-rounded, to understand the various elements that comprised society, from the astronomy to biology to geography. I was never comfortable not knowing about something or lacking a proficiency.
In middle school, I found myself competing on a state-wide level in events ranging from the National Geographic Bee to science fairs and Olympiads. When my local schools did not challenge me enough, I applied to the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), which carried the advantage of surrounding myself with the state’s best and brightest minds, but without the exorbitant costs associated with a private boarding school (IMSA is a fully public, state-funded selective-enrollment high school).
In high school, I developed an immense interest in American government and politics, and involved myself in congressional debate, mock trial, and speech. At the same time, I remained heavily involved in basic science and translation research, where I studied molecular pathways in pancreatic cancer tumorigenesis. It was also around this time that I taught myself how to code starting in middle school, carrying on into my high school years, until eventually I landed an internship through IMSA’s TALENT program, which paired students interested in technology and entrepreneurship with successful mentors.
During the summer before college, I was hired as the Director of Mobile Application Development for the Chicago Sun-Times, and placed in charge of developing the first version of what is now their iOS news app:
College and Non-Medical Pursuits (2014-2017)
I was accepted into a 7-year direct BA/MD program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Essentially being accepted to medical school as a high school senior, I began, once again, to broaden my academic horizons and took up Political Science as my major. Even though I went to a public school, college was not cheap — fortunately, I was able to use my aforementioned coding skills to make some money during the summers and gradually pay off my tuition! I spent a summer working for a FinTech (financial technology) company, Raise.com, where I had the privilege of working with blockchain technology, which at the time was relatively new and was just beginning to attract the curious eyes of major corporations. I was able to file provisional patents for some of my work:
From my collective experiences working in IT, I knew I wanted to find ways to develop and integrate cutting-edge technologies into healthcare. Much of my professional life relating to technology up to this point has been spent finding ways that it could promote profits for the various companies I worked with. Sure, on one hand, I was happy to be able to make enough money to pay off a sizable chunk of my undergraduate student loans (before medical school loans sunk me back into the red). But I started to grow weary of how the software I created was being used. I have always been passionate about technology, but from here on, I became committed to using it to make a more positive impact on the lives of everyday people — to improve health quality and outcomes, to fill current gaps in medical care, and to bridge disparities within the healthcare system.
Additionally, my education in political science and participation in related activities provided me with the knowledge and advocacy skills necessary to being an effective advocate for my patients within my medical career. Mock trials taught me how to speak effectively and persuasively in the pursuit of justice. Constitutional law courses and clinics provided me with essential skills in advocacy-oriented writing. My passion for policy and lobbying would carry forward into my medical school education, propelling me toward my increasing involvement in the American Medical Association and other groups within organized medicine.
Medical Career (2017-)
Upon entering medical school, the process of ultimately selecting a specialty was rather intuitive for me. Seeing as a significant portion of my previous education and involvement revolved around the social sciences — law, policy, philosophy, ethics — it was quite natural for me to gravitate toward a field that dealt with the organ that enables us to carry out abstract thought, cognition, emotion, speech. Intrigued by the structure-function relationships within the brain, and how many of these areas remain the subject of great controversy and novel research, I wanted to be able to manipulate structures with the brain in order to make a definitive and positive impact in the lives of patients suffering from neurologic conditions.
I was fortunate enough to have the support of mentors within the field of neurosurgery throughout the course of my medical education, who were excited to teach me all they knew and involve me in their academic endeavors. I had the privilege of performing research in neurosurgery under the mentorship of Dr. Ankit Mehta, our Associate Program Director. Working alongside him, my love of neurosurgery, in conjunction with my interest in organized medicine and technology, all came together.
I was able to pursue research projects relating to socioeconomic issues in neurosurgery, as you can see from my publications. It is my hope that my career in medicine will continue to be one whereby I can research issues relating to healthcare policy, and in turn, informing future policies and advocacy directions with the results of my research.
Dr. Mehta, who himself has a background in engineering in addition to being a superb neurosurgeon and an expert in spinal neuro-oncology, would also regularly invite us to weekly “innovation meetings” whereby we brainstormed ideas for new devices and mobile technologies that would improve the quality of neurosurgical care. As someone with a background in IT, I felt at home — finally being able to put my skills and expertise in this area for an altruistic purpose — to the betterment of our patients rather than the sole pursuit of profits.