Hannah Redden is a senior in the Department of Bioengineering and Department of Biochemistry, minoring in Chemistry and Classical Studies, undergraduate researcher in the Integrated Brain Imaging Center (IBIC), and Outreach Chair for BMES. Throughout quarantine, she has enjoyed taking pictures and learning about photography on her new camera, with her favorite subject being her 2 month old nephew.

“My paternal grandparents lived in a tiny rural town in a house that my grandpa built himself. Their 7-person family squeezed into a quaint little house near their farmland. The house didn’t even have a bathroom until my dad married my mom, a girl from the big city, in the mid 90’s and my grandpa built a bathroom just for her. It’s probably one of the most rural places left in rapidly-developing South Korea and although I can see the slight touches of modernity creeping into the fancy freezer keeping the produce in the shed or the addition of a bathroom and new kitchen appliances, the uneven floors and walls, low stooped ceiling, and the familiar musty scent of the house remind me of its deep history and my own young memories.

When I was three years old, my mom packed up all of our bags and left the comfort of our extensive family network in South Korea to immigrate to the US with no one but a family friend as a contact, just to give my brother and I the best chance of success despite growing up in a single mother family. While my mom made sure that my brother and I never wanted for anything, money was always a bit tight, with my mom working three jobs at one point, and my brother and I spending many nights sleeping under her desk at work as she worked late into the night. But every once in a while, she would save up enough money to send the two of us back to spend summer break with our grandparents in Korea. And so we grew up with a foot in each door, living as a Korean and living as an American, observing the two different cultures dance, intertwine, and clash in all aspects of life.

During our visits to our grandparents’, my brother and I would spend the entire break frolicking through the fields, playing in the dust roads, and watching our grandparents and other people in the town work the land. There was never a dull moment, as we were always fascinated with the vast difference between life in the suburbs of the US and life in the rural countryside with our grandparents. Everything, even basic things like eating (cross-legged on the floor with a small foldable table), sleeping (with the four of us snuggled in blankets on the ‘living room’ floor), and pooping (squatting over a little pot right outside the back door in the kitchen space) were new adventures. 

But my favorite part was absorbing all of the little tidbits about health and how the body works from my grandmother. In Eastern medicine, food is considered medicine, and preventative measures weren’t just to delay or avoid an imminent diagnosis, they were just a part of everyday life. As a child who had always wanted to become a doctor, it had always seemed like such a long academic journey before I would be knowledgeable enough to understand how the human body works, so I was always blown away by how well my grandmother knew how to address health-related issues and how much she understood health, nutrition, and basic body systems even though she had never received any kind of formal schooling. Growing up, that was probably one of the biggest puzzles in my life, trying to reconcile the two different worlds: the sterile ivory tower world of Western medicine confined in the expensive hospitals that we rarely visited versus the Eastern medical practices permeating into every aspect of daily life, where health was emphasized even in every bit of food that we consumed. It’s a puzzle that I still ponder over today.

Right as I started high school, my grandmother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, with metastases all over her body, including her brain, so that winter, we spent our last break with my grandmother before she passed away. But amidst all of the worry and grief, I couldn’t help but feel a little strange, seeing my grandmother in the hospital surrounded by medical equipment, which grated so severely against how she had chosen to live her entire life. There’s always a push to force people in rural areas to adopt practices of big cities, to accept modern routines because modernity is always better, right? But when I think back to the peaceful memories in the quiet rural home, her calm soothing voice patiently explaining generations of knowledge, and the everyday hustle of farm work, I always wonder: why does the burden fall solely on these communities to accommodate the incompatibility between the two ways of life? Why can’t medical technologies be better fitted to their lifestyle? Thinking back, maybe this was what first started pushing me toward bioengineering.

As engineers, we ultimately have to make assumptions and choices, and while they may be far from perfect, without them it would be near impossible to actually get anything done. But because of these assumptions, there will almost always be someone who doesn’t fit, and that’s the beauty of diversity and what makes research so exciting.There is always someone new to meet, and something new to learn or discover. However, if and when we find ourselves outside of the box of engineering specifications, whether in beliefs, customs, lifestyle, or even economic ability, we probably don’t want to be told that this is the end of the line, that we just have to make do with what is available. 

As bioengineers, we design solutions for people, and in order to do so we have to make an effort to understand the people, in their health and genetic makeup, but also in their way of life and access or relationship with health and healthcare. It’s definitely a big feat, especially when we, especially me, sometimes struggle to even understand ourselves. But it really doesn’t take a lot – sometimes all it takes is asking a friend a simple question about their culture, openly listening to their stories, or maybe just sharing your own story and listening for a response.”

Humans of UW Bioengineering is a student led group that aims to bring together the UW BioE community through individuals’ stories. During the 2019-2020 academic year, Krithi Basu, Nathaniel Linden and Hannah Redden took over the project as a senior honors project. Their goal is to incorporate a focus on personal and community cultural backgrounds. They hope to promote cultural awareness across the community and in the engineering design process.