April Student Spotlight - Amelia & Amanda Khoo
Amelia Khoo (interviewed by Amanda Khoo):
Tell us about your engineering background.
It’s kind of funny, actually – upon starting my first year at Brown, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to concentrate in, but I was fairly certain I didn’t want to be an engineer. My dad had studied mechanical engineering and my sister had gone to Santa Clara and become a bioengineer. I was desperate to carve out my own path, and although I did really love math, I had never taken a physics course in high school.
I shopped ENGN 40 mostly because it fit nicely with the rest of my schedule, and a bunch of my friends were in it. But I didn’t know how much hard work it was going to be (laughs). I have always liked a challenge, but passing and succeeding in that class took countless hours of catch-up, teaching myself MATLAB syntax from scratch and literally learning how to draw a free body diagram when most of my classmates had spent the last semester, or even years of their lives, having learnt these principles. I remember feeling so much less capable than my peers. It was only through the help of my incredible professor Dr. Allan Bower, the extremely committed TA team, and a ton of hard work with close friends (go Solar Bears!) that I was able to pass – and, incredibly, enjoy – the class. Somewhere along the way I realized that I actually enjoyed working with my hands, in teams, and thinking about big, seemingly-unsolvable problems in this really structured way. Now, I can’t imagine having chosen something else to concentrate in, because so many of my interests and the opportunities I have been given have come in part or in whole because of my engineering degree.
I have always been fascinated by the human body and its various pathologies. The thing that really swayed me towards BME versus another traditional biological concentration were the applications of the research for each field. When I was deciding my concentration, I actually looked up labs at Brown, and I found that BME research was full of these really exciting, cutting-edge technologies with real-world applications that I could easily trace. So that was a moment that was like, ding! (laughs.) I now conduct research in the Coulombe Lab, where my project focuses on vascularization studies of cardiac tissue constructs in vivo. This has been a really wonderful experience and showed me that I definitely made the right decision to concentrate in BME! I’m now interested in pursuing something in the medical field, but the engineering perspective has been invaluable.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned here?
The power of solidarity and peer support. Feeling underprepared and unworthy in my intro engineering courses was really tough. For me, the best way to combat this was to seek solace in my systems of support – sometimes this means professors and TAs, but often it means friends, people who are going through the same thing as I am, students who also feel lost and overwhelmed. Engineering, like life, is all about failing over and over and learning to get up after those mistakes, so finding ways to cope with that failure – even if it’s just commiseration – are really important!
What’s it like to have your sister here?
People mix us up all the time, so I guess it’s like having a twin! (laughs) In all seriousness, my sister is far wiser than me, and she is a constant source of inspiration. I’ve looked up to her since we were kids and I copied her every move, so to be in the same field, much less the same program, as her really is an honor for me. (laughs) And I just talked about how I wanted to stray from my sister’s path!
Amanda Khoo (interviewed by Amelia Khoo):
Why did you choose bioengineering?
I’ve always liked tactile work. When I was younger that translated into a lot of paper airplanes and DIY solutions to household problems. But, I never really made the connection to engineering until college. Initially I switched to bioengineering because I found myself being interested in more math classes than the biology degree required. Then I started coursework in engineering and fell for the problem-solving mentality. It’s a such a positive worldview. Setbacks aren’t problems, they’re puzzles! And the degree is training to wield tools to solve those puzzles. Retrospectively, my path to bioengineering makes a lot of sense, but it wasn’t always so clear. It’s more like I started with a couple truths: an interest in biology and math, a knack for design, a can-do attitude. I made decisions along the way that brought me closer to what I enjoyed and found bioengineering as a fulfilling vocation.
But why graduate school?
I actually started as a pre-medicine student until I realized that there were a lot of other professions you could go into as a gal interested in science. I really enjoyed research, but even as senior year rolled around I wasn’t sure if I should go to graduate school right away and got a lot of conflicting advice about that timeline. What I gained from that, though, is that the timeline is sort of what you make of it. I decided to apply to a select few schools that I knew I’d attend if I were accepted, and if they were all rejections, I would have my timeline set for me—try again in one year. But I was accepted! And the rest is history.
I knew I wanted to go graduate school at some point because I think research is fun! I know that’s a very basic answer but it’s the truth. I find the iterative process of optimizing with small improvements to finally reach a system you can use to answer questions wonderful. Plus, it’s absolutely mind boggling to me that, as researchers, we can actually add to the human body of knowledge that exists about the universe! And that that body of knowledge keeps growing! And that there is an infinite number of things to know more about!
I research in Dr. Ian Wong’s lab. Our lab is interested in the epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, a biological phenomenon rooted in development that may have implications in how cancer cells get around the body. And my current project focuses on shape changes of cancer cells in various 3D environments. These shape changes tell us something about the motility of the cell and may give us insight into how cells’ respond to their local environments. I get to watch really amazing videos of what these cells do and how they change their shape. The work is really interesting (laughs) – or at least I like to think so.
That’s not to say research is without its challenges! This profession is a vocation, and there’s nothing wrong with finding out it’s not for you. One reason I know I like research is because I gave myself the option to not like it. But I also knew I owed it to myself to wholeheartedly jump into the experience so I could really test if I was right about this path for me. And though it can be hard at times, I feel blessed and happy with my decisions and their outcomes. I’ve grown emotionally and academically in ways I never would have without the challenges of research. If this has been anything, it has been a test of my ability to overcome setbacks and learn from mistakes, a lesson that has been applicable to many parts of my life.
What’s something that surprised you about graduate school? Any advice for new graduate students?
Graduate school can sometimes be lonelier than you anticipate. The level of independence expected here may be a little jarring at first, some of which is the nature of graduate school. I have my communities and strong support system to thank for getting me through times I have been discouraged. I’ve been able to find a good community in my lab and have always been grateful to my family and friends for supporting me in everything I do. Along those lines, I would advise new graduate students to invest in your communities early and seek out support as you transition into the graduate school lifestyle. These will help you stay grounded even when things aren’t working out with your project. Also, don’t forget to check in with yourself. It’s easy to get carried away with the tasks of each day but cultivating a habit of self-care and self-awareness will help you stay motivated and ensure you’re on the right path for you.
What’s your favorite part about Brown?
I love the breadth of activities at Brown and feel very privileged to be a part of many of them. My first year at Brown I was a part of Disco Inferno, Brown women’s Ultimate Frisbee team. I’m co-social chair for the Graduate Biomedical Engineering Society (gBMES) and have had opportunities to complete programs like the Sheridan Teaching Certificate. There are opportunities to run research demos for high school students through collaborations with the Brown Science Prep or teach during Summer at Brown.
The graduate school supports students with varied interests, trusting that we are able to prioritize our primary degree. Last year I became very interested in learning more about the Data Science Initiative program and, through the support of Dr. Wong and the Open Graduate Education (OGE) Program, I am now funded to pursue a concurrent master’s degree in Data Science. The fact that a program like the OGE exists and that it’s backed with monetary value is a testament of graduate school’s commitment to truly supporting students with varied interests, and a recognition that having a breadth of knowledge inside and outside your field provides valuable and nuanced perspectives to the primary degree.
How are your experiences in the graduate and undergraduate bioengineering programs different? Any similarities?
I was a part of Santa Clara University’s Bioengineering program and a major difference I see is who is in charge of managing my time. My undergraduate education had the support I needed to grow into the kind of person who could handle the level of independence expected in graduate education. That support was very much in the regimental system of being busy with classes, labs, office hours, and extracurricular activities. I see this reflected in the differences between Amelia and I’s schedules. We’re both very busy, but in different ways. She’s running around campus all day with a schedule, while I generally stay in one building. It’s a reflection of how time management is different for the both of us—for me, I don’t have recurring appointments or as many courses, but do have my own project to manage. That level of freedom means I need to organize my time even more strictly and adhere to it since it takes a certain level of willpower to keep an appointment with yourself! But even though our experiences are different they’re definitely appropriate for each of us. And the respective challenges in each type of schedule helps us adapt the best approaches to our own goals.
What’s it like to have your sister at Brown?
It’s so fun, even though we bicker (laughs). We live together and have dance parties and stay up late watching planet earth. It’s nice to have family on campus, especially when I first moved here from California. I’ll be really sad for her to leave but also proud to see her graduate this year ☺.