How did you first decide to study a Biology-related degree?
I loved many, many things when I was in high school – I excelled in subjects like art, history, English, and Chemistry, and I was deeply involved in several extracurricular activities. I was interested in everything, and in my final year of high school I suddenly had to choose one. It felt restrictive and, in the way that 17-year-old teens are when they're told to make a life decision, a little damning.
I was sitting on a bench outdoors with my best friend, enjoying the rare clear sky in the campus of my old school and staring at my hands absent-mindedly, the way I often do to watch the dynamic nature of the shadows my palm lines create, a study for when I paint digitally. That was when it clicked for me.
Art to me is interesting for its storytelling nature: its depiction of what life is, what it looks like and how people perceive it. Science, I figured, is a collection of stories – of why life works the way it does, of what makes it look the way it does, and of how complex systems can work so flawlessly together. I liked knowing how things work. Making the leap from that to learning how life works was not that difficult.
Why did you decide to study at St Andrews?
It was a coincidence – my mom convinced me to apply to St Andrews, and her reasoning was that if Prince William went to St Andrews, then it must be a good university. My American teachers also had good things to say about it. St Andrews has a rolling admissions system for international students, so I received my unconditional offer in December after applying in October. After that, in a weird twist of fate, all of the universities I applied to accepted me conditionally – and, in one case, even lost my application until I called them. It might have been because I had American qualifications, something the others may not be as familiar to as St Andrews is. My final grades didn't qualify for my first choice, but at least I tried, so I shrugged off the brief feeling of disappointment and packed for St. Andrews.
The first time I arrived in Edinburgh for my first year was the first time I ever stepped foot in Europe. I never looked back since.
What are some of your degree highlights?
First year Biology introduced me to immunology and neuroscience. I was so fascinated by both, I actually thought of switching to neuroscience, but I took Art History (instead of Psychology) in first year so I couldn't switch. I figured sticking to immunology is just as good and followed that until I learnt about paraneoplastic antibodies in Clinical Biochemistry in fourth year – a topic in the crossroads of immunology, neuroscience and oncology, a topic I'm personally invested in. It felt like a jackpot.
Egg lab in first year. In first year I didn't really read ahead (I learnt that habit by second year) so I walked in for a surprise: we had to crack open an egg that was fertilized 3-4 days previously. The nervous system had not developed yet, so theoretically it would not feel any pain. I usually take turns with my lab partner, i.e. she'll do what I don't want to do and vice versa. She was terrified but curious, and I was significantly more curious than terrified, so I cracked the egg open while she watched. We got to see its heart beating and its vertebrae. It just hit me that I have one of those in me (not exactly the same one, but still) – and I was just so awed by it.
Science illustration is something I'm interested in taking for a master's degree. On my final year, Dr Nairn introduced me to Alex Gilmore, a third year who's also interested in science communication. One thing led to another and we made a science illustration booklet, funded by the Royal Society of Biology, and we distributed it on Discovery Day with a Make-Your-Own-DNA-bracelet activity. We didn't think of asking our friends, and that was a grave mistake - we spoke to probably more than 100 kids for 6 hours straight and made at least 60 bracelets. We explained DNA concepts to kids of all ages, from 5-year olds to 14-year olds, and it was an extremely rewarding experience to hear them recite the Watson-Crick complementary bases to me.
What do you do outside class at St Andrews?
I'm the President of the Biology Society and a regular volunteer for the Design Team Subcommittee of the Students' Association. I've been involved in every part of a society – design, publicity, event organization, society liaisons, student and staff relations, chairing meetings, and navigating clashing personalities in a committee. These two does not only add a considerable bulk to both my CV and portfolio, but also improved my interpersonal and organizational skills significantly. The science illustration booklet project and my outreach activities were significant in figuring out what direction I want to take in the next few years.
The co-founder of a medical writing company I'm interested in (and highly likely to be working part-time for next year) picked up my CV because of its weird combination: my skills in Asian languages, my background in Biology, and my skills and experiences in design. He was extremely impressed by the science illustration booklet project and that landed me an interview, and potentially a job in the next year or two.
What did you learn about yourself while at the University of St Andrews?
A couple of things that I learnt about myself: 1) I can't live without doing art and/or design projects, I tried and was miserable for a whole year; 2) I will only have a small number of friends I'm extremely close with, and that's okay; and 3) I found that, with any topic, if I stare at it long enough, I will eventually find something that I like or fascinates me about it. It makes writing about said topic a less painful endeavour.
What advice would you give anyone considering a Biology-related degree at St Andrews?
Learning about everything there is to do in Biology is overwhelming. Some will go in knowing they're not interested in one thing or another. Some will go in and find out there's a research area they never knew about before. The School of Biology in St Andrews have not only created a curriculum that will show you the breadth of what Biology covers, but it also consists of supportive, patient staff members who will push you to do your best – better than you thought you could ever do.
What is your next step?
In the coming year, I am hoping to learn Mandarin Chinese at a university in Beijing, China. I will be working part-time at my old school as support for their Chemistry department as well, as a temp for one of their teachers who will be on her maternity leave, and after that ends, part-time for a professional medical writing company which I might be working for after I finish my language studies. Career-wise, I want to work in a design-related job in the scientific communication field.