Interview with 2005 Scholarship Winner

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Sally Liu, recipient of a 2005 Kyoto Scholarship in Basic Sciences, recently completed undergraduate studies in biology at Duke University, where she spent a whirlwind four years studying, interning abroad, and captaining the school’s varsity track & field team. In her free time she followed Duke’s stellar basketball team, even participating in the school tradition of “tenting” during games with local rival UNC. As a Marshall Scholarship recipient, she will spend the next two years studying health policy in London. Here Sally talks about her time in college as well as her plans for the future.

Please tell us briefly about where you grew up, and anything about your family that you’d like to share.

I was actually born in Ohio. My parents were graduate students at Ohio University. My mom immigrated in 1983 and my dad immigrated in 1985 and then I was born in 1987 while they were finishing up their graduate studies. Then we spent a little bit of time in Pennsylvania where my brother was born. Most of my childhood was spent in Indiana. We lived in Kokomo, Indiana, where my parents were both engineers for Delco, which was part of General Motors. Then we moved to California in 2000, so I’ve been in California since I was 12 or 13.

So you have one younger brother?

Yes, his name is Dennis. He’s headed off to UC Berkeley this year for college. He’s going to study bioengineering.

Seems like that runs in the family. You just graduated from Duke in May. What surprised you about college, and what did you love about your experience at Duke?

I had a great time in college at Duke. I was surprised just by the overwhelming number of resources and opportunities available to students and the different things that we could do. I really tried to max my use of those opportunities and resources, from things like being able to do independent research with a faculty mentor, studying abroad, and being a part of an athletic sports team — I was on the track & field team there. We had a civic engagement program that started up while I was there called DukeEngage that’s funded by the Gates Foundation, so that was a good opportunity. I did an internship through that program. Just in terms of being able to engage in the campus, the community — I was really surprised at the number of things I was able to do. I think part of that was due to the scholarship support that I had, including the Kyoto Scholarship. My time was freed up because I didn’t have to hold a job, so I could take part in more extracurricular activities, so that was great. Then specifically to Duke, it was just an awesome, awesome experience.

Huge basketball school, right?

Yeah. It’s a huge basketball school. So I really got into college basketball, especially following Duke. I actually ended up “tenting” outside for five weeks this year for the Duke-UNC basketball game, which is kind of a school tradition. But it was five weeks in the cold, and as a girl from Southern California, it was a little bit rough. But it was an amazing experience.

Tenting? What’s that? 

Tenting is…we set up, literally, tents outside the gym and near the basketball stadium. Our [men’s basketball] coach is Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski], so we called it K-ville. There’s a very structured system—a whole system of regulations and policies governing how we get in line and how we tent for the game. Each tent has 12 people and you have to register. The order that you register is the order in which your tent is registered and that’s the order you have in line. So people will wait overnight for the registration process as well. Basically you have 12 people per tent and you have to have at least one person in the tent 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During the daytime events, there has to be at least eight people in a tent, as well as at night. As an individual person, you’re sleeping outside in the tent five days out of the seven. You also have daytime shifts. We had this whole Excel spreadsheet with time slots for each person for every week so it wouldn’t interfere with classes and other obligations. We had to stay out there for, I think, 6 hours a person during the day, spread out throughout the week, and then 5 nights. It was kind of a complicated system, but it was definitely an adventure. It’s a great bonding experience. They’ll call tent-checks in the middle of the night and everyone loses sleep. They have this siren and they check IDs. You can get very grumpy in the middle of the night if you’re called and you have a test the next day.

Where did you study abroad?

I studied at Oxford the summer after my freshman year. It was the Duke In Oxford Summer Program. That was a great experience. It was six weeks. I studied British civil liability law—kind of a random topic.

That’s not really related to the medical field.

Well, we did have cases on medical negligence, but mostly it was a good opportunity for me to study something different and expand my perspective. So I did the law class, which convinced me not to go to law school. But it was a really great experience to spend some time in the UK and travel a little bit. That was probably the reason that I applied for the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, having had that experience.

Y
ou must have liked being in the UK if you applied for the Marshall Scholarship. Now you’re going to spend a year in London?

I’m spending two years there. The Marshall Scholarship provides funding for two years of graduate study. The master’s degrees there are only one year, so I’ll be doing two. My first master’s will be in public health at the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and then for my second year I’m planning on going to the London School of Economics to get a degree in health policy, planning and financing.

What’s it going to be like being away from the States for two years?

I don’t know. I think it will be really fun and I’ll be able to travel, meet a lot of people and go to a bunch of different places, but I already know that I’m going to miss the food here and some of the conveniences of American life.  In general, though, I’m really excited about it. Living abroad for two years makes me a little bit anxious; but at the same time, it makes me really excited. I don’t know when I’ll have another opportunity to go somewhere else and really immerse myself in so many different cultures and be able to have an educational opportunity like this.

There are 40 Marshall Scholars, correct? Do you all live together?

Yes, there’s a residential college for international post-graduate students in London. It’s called Goodenough [pronounced “good-ee-no”] College. Some people opt to rent a flat on their own in the second year, but I think for the first year, everyone’s housed there. That’s actually an interesting place to live because it’s not just people who are going to be at my school, but people who are studying in institutions all over London from over 90 countries all across the world. So that, in itself, is an amazing opportunity to live and work among people from so many different places in a really cosmopolitan environment.

Have you already been accepted to a medical school?

Yes. I’m going to the University of Pennsylvania. I was deciding between there and Harvard. I also got into Harvard Medical School, but the reason I’m going to Penn is that I really like their medical curriculum, and they also have a great MB/MBA program with the Wharton School. I ended up getting a scholarship there that covers my tuition. So all-in-all, it was a great combination of a medical curriculum that I really like, plus the opportunity to get some training in health care management and get that extra degree. So I’ll be headed to Philly after London. I’m entering in 2011.
You mentioned being on the track team. How does one get into pole-vaulting?

I started pole vaulting at Rancho Bernardo High School. Our coach there, Tom Martin, is just an amazing coach and he has established a great pole-vaulting program. He was actually my PE teacher my freshman year. He told us about pole vaulting and showed us this video and it just looked like the craziest, most fun thing that I’d ever seen, so I decided to try out for the team and made it. It was a struggle at first. Because it’s such a technical sport, I really struggled and I almost quit, but I stuck with it and ended up really enjoying it. I went to the California State Track & Field Championships my senior year and was recruited to a couple of different schools for pole vaulting.

My track experience in college was one of the best things I’ve ever gotten to do. I think the biggest thing for me was learning how to balance different things. Our training and competition schedule was a lot more intense than in high school. We’d have three or four hours of practice every day, and then in the spring we’d have to travel on the weekends, so we’d end up missing a lot of class. It was a big time demand, but learning how to balance that with pre-med courses and other things I was involved in taught me how to deal with time management and discipline.

In terms of perseverance and team work and developing a sense of leadership, my senior year I was elected one of the team captains and we did workshops on conflict resolution and how to make sure people were in the right mindset to get the most out of training. Learning things that were really valuable toward building leadership skills and teamwork, and having that sense of how to work with other people.

What are your feelings about the state of healthcare in the U.S. right now? 

I think that there are shortcomings the way it currently stands, and I believe that the majority of Americans think that there needs to be some improvement, but exactly how those improvements can be made — that’s where the debate gets really fired up.
That’s part of the reason I got interested in studying healthcare from a more macroscopic perspective. I started getting more interested in healthcare policy and how to give more people better access to care. Those are the things I’m interested in studying. One of the things I hope to do in England is learn about public health and health policy, and see other countries and how they design their healthcare systems — I think it will give me a really good perspective. Maybe in the future I can contribute somehow to healthcare reform in the United States.

You also volunteer. What has been your most poignant experience, or the most meaningful volunteer work you’ve done?

I’ve done some international work; I spent a summer at a hospital in China and that was really great. That was the first time I had full immersion in a hospital and saw healthcare from an international standpoint. I also learned a bit about traditional Chinese medicine, which was really cool. Last summer through the DukeEngage program I did a community eye-health project and worked for the UCSD Center for Community Ophthalmology, which does projects providing vision care for children in under-served communities in San Diego and the U.S./Mexico border region especially.

But I think my most meaningful volunteer experience was while I was at Duke. I was a teacher for the Durham Literacy Center. They have a program called ESOL, English for Speakers of Other Languages. I taught a class for adults. Most of them were Latino immigrants, mostly male and all older than I was. I started volunteering because at Duke it’s very easy to get caught up in campus life — we call it the “Duke Bubble” — and I wanted to get out and engage in the community. I also thought it would be a good way to practice my Spanish. I was definitely a little intimidated at first to be in a room with 20 or 30 students who were all older guys and they were expecting me to be their teacher, to be in a position of authority and knowledge. We teach in teams. I spent a lot of time with my co-teacher and worked on developing the curriculum and lesson plans every week. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Getting to teach mostly migrant workers English and helping them improve their quality of life — even if it’s just being able to go to businesses and communicate their needs or what they want to buy. Simple things like filling out housing forms, just everyday things. We always do a pre-test and a post-test, to measure their progress. I was really inspired to see the improvements that my students made over the course of a semester. I taught there for several semesters. I started my sophomore year and taught through my senior year.

I remember hearing individual stories of what they had gone through — their work, their jobs, their families, their struggles — it really put my life into perspective because I think it’s really easy to get stressed out as a college student, thinking, “Oh my gosh, I have so many things going on and I have all these exams and track practice,” et cetera. Getting to see them every week made me realize that there are a lot of things that people struggle with that are so much more substantial and a lot harder to deal with than just getting through the next exam. It gave me a more real-world perspective. Getting to see their progress was really inspiring. One of my students worked as a housepainter and construction laborer. After he went through my class he actually applied to Durham Tech Community College. He decided to go back to school because he had better English skills to take the classes. He’s training to be an auto mechanic, which has better pay and more opportunities. He said, “Thank you so much. My English—I feel so much better about it. I can go back to school!” That almost made me cry; I was just so moved. So that was my most meaningful volunteer experience, even though it wasn’t directly related to medicine.

O
ne last question. After you graduate from medical school are you planning to go into research, practice, or public policy?

Good question! I’m definitely going to do a residency so I can get clinical training and be able to practice. Ultimately, I’d like to combine my different interests, possibly with a position in academic medicine, where I would be able to spend time in both clinical activities and in public health research or health services research that would influence policy. I don’t necessarily see myself directly as a public-policy maker, but more as someone who might do health-oriented research to better inform policy or make policy recommendations. Having the clinical side and being able to practice medicine, but also the chance to do research and inform policy — I think the best setting to do that would be through an academic institution.