Alton Cao is a senior in bioengineering. He completed a team capstone project to engineer a system to be implemented in hospitals that will autonomously characterize and dispose of controlled substances. After graduation, he plans to apply to medical school.

“Freshman year, I was an anxious pre-BioE trying to find a way to get into research. I was a first-generation college student, born and raised in the Seattle public school system, and I came into UW not very confident in my own abilities in science or having a great understanding of how academic research worked exactly. Recently, I had the opportunity to mentor a freshman who had a similar background to me, regarding getting involved in research on campus. Looking back I could definitely see myself in him; it’s far too easy for people in this field to have a disconnect and forget how non-trivial it is to begin in research. For example, I had to start by explaining what an academic paper was.

In my first year at UW, following rejections from the labs that I applied to here, I decided to apply last minute to the Amgen Scholars Japan summer research program at the University of Tokyo. I did this despite being younger than the sophomore standing cut-off and not having any prior research experience. It was like a shot in the dark but I got it. I worked at the Takai Lab on a project in platforming electrospun polystyrene nanofibers for immunoassays. I think that experience really helped me develop the confidence to become a scientist and get a real understanding of the bioengineering field, for which I feel incredibly grateful and lucky.

I learned early on that I had to begin building the confidence to ask for the things I wanted for my career, whether it be a position in a lab, mentorship from a professor, or a letter of recommendation. From my experience in talking to other first-generation students, developing this initiative to reach out is a massive barrier to success. We are not necessarily less qualified or apt than other students, but I think we experience this fundamentally ingrained feeling of not belonging and feeling like we don’t deserve the help and opportunities that we receive. I remember the hesitation I felt to reach out to Dr. Alyssa Taylor, who taught my BIOEN215 class, for a letter of support to send to Amgen, since it was only about a week and a half before it was due. If I had felt too embarrassed or ashamed to ask, I wouldn’t have ever landed that opportunity!

After I returned to UW, I joined another lab in spring of sophomore year. I really loved my project and mentor when I worked there over the summer. My mentor then went abroad for a fellowship the following autumn and my PI was on leave so I was left to my own devices on my project, and I had a lot of trouble staying on track with my research. Looking back, I wasn’t prepared to adjust to the freedom that I was given, and really needed more guidance and support with my work. When I began drafting a senior capstone project proposal in that lab, mid-way through, my PI told me that they didn’t want to support my capstone project anymore. Most students after going through BioE would tell you that junior year autumn is the hardest quarter of core, but for me it was that spring. I was very lucky to have support throughout this time, from friends in my BioE cohort, and outside of BioE. I confided a lot with a mentor who shared personal experiences with me from her own Ph.D. program, where things also just didn’t work out, but she trudged through. She advised me not to make the same choice to continue something that was detrimental to my physical and emotional well-being.

It’s a little scary that these sorts of negative experiences in academia just get swept under the table and are rarely openly discussed. Going through this was a huge blow to my confidence as a student and researcher, to be unable to meet the expectations of those who invested so much in you, and I blamed myself a lot. I felt like I had been building up that confidence to work in science over years and it just kind of disappeared in an instant.

I decided to change my focus to other opportunities in lieu of research: I joined the health scholar program at Swedish and also began scribing at UW Medicine in the urology department. I really love both of these jobs! I get to work closely with world class providers, and I love the feeling of being able to tangibly improve someone’s quality of life inside a clinic environment. In the hospital, I really treasure the opportunity to talk with patients and their families, learn about their experiences, and make personal connections with them. There are some really incredible doctors at UW Medicine who have given me great guidance. One of my favorite doctors told me, ‘There are always those 5 percent of patients who make everything you do worth doing.’ I’ve seen patients drive for days from Wyoming just to see the doctors here, even though they probably could have chosen to go to Denver instead.  Often this is for annual cancer follow ups, despite these patients being in complete remission; they just want to catch up with their doctor. I think despite how physically and emotionally difficult the job is, you get this satisfaction of knowing that you made a real impact on someone’s life, and that’s something I want for my future.

I think that if you asked me a year ago if I would want to do BioE again, I’d say absolutely not from how difficult it was, but, thinking about it again now, I’ve definitely changed my mind. As someone who didn’t have people around them in science, it was hard to enter the world of STEM, but I think I had such a wealth of opportunities to learn and grow as a person through this program that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I’m happy with the choices I’ve made in respect to that, and I am incredibly grateful.”