UGSLA Recipient: Michelle Wang

Undergraduate Student Leader: Pharmacology and Toxicology

Michelle Wang
Photo supplied.

Personal Statement

Throughout my undergraduate studies, leadership positions were not opportunities I consciously sought; they were found along a path that unfolded as I aimed to support my peers amidst unprecedented times. As the pandemic hit during my first year of university, it posed a notable challenge in adjusting to university life and fostering a sense of belonging for those around me. My leadership experiences began serendipitously, propelled by the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, which redefined student engagement and community building within the university.

During the pandemic, I noticed that students faced barriers to accessing research positions due to social distancing measures. This sparked my determination to make these research opportunities easier for students to access. As a result, I joined HBSU and PTSA to advocate for student interests through departmental programming to facilitate academic and professional development. Most importantly, I wanted to promote inclusivity and opportunity for all students. Over three years, I became deeply involved in both student unions.

This culminated in my HBSU and PTSA dual presidency where I oversaw 3500+ students. I led two 19-member teams organizing new events reflective of student interests, such as research workshops and conferences to facilitate professional development and promote non-traditional life science careers (e.g., consulting or health care venture capital). Through conferences like "Conversations in Research: Longevity Night'' and "Her Health Horizons: A Women's Health Conference," I provided students with a platform to interact with biotech founders, bridging the gap between academia and industry while showcasing new career options to students. Furthermore, events like “Road to Research” promoted academic opportunities for students who are historically marginalized and underrepresented.

By recognizing the hurdles in obtaining one's first research position, especially for those facing financial constraints and lack of representation, I aimed to inform students about available funding opportunities and assist them in getting these positions. My mission centered on equitable access to academic resources and fostering a strong sense of community, exemplified by our student union engagement. Currently, HBSU hosts 200-250 students per event and has over 500 students in HBSU's mentorship programs, quadruple in size compared to when I first joined the team. 

While it was fulfilling to promote professional development among my peers, I sought to have a broader impact and joined Nucleate, a non-profit dedicated to empowering young scientists and biotechnology entrepreneurs. While with Nucleate, I wrote educational playbooks that simplified the concepts underlying trending science topics. Later, this expanded to DojoExplore, an educational curriculum to teach students about biomedical commercialization and opportunities in biotechnology. Since the start of this initiative, this curriculum has deployed as a global online cohort in addition to in-person programming at Harvard University, University of California Berkeley, and McGill University.

Additionally, I actively contributed to organizing DojoHouse, an initiative to provide historically underrepresented undergraduate students with rent-free accommodation in the Boston area. This allowed marginalized students to pursue research or biotech internships while fostering connections with biotech founders. DojoHouse later expanded to DojoGrants, which alleviated financial burdens for students pursuing full-time research alongside academics, removed barriers deterring students from valuable opportunities, and increased accessibility to academic resources for marginalized students. 

Beyond academic endeavours, my passion for increasing accessibility to resources led to a volunteer experience at Street Health. This organization aimed to improve the health and wellbeing of people facing socioeconomic barriers. As a volunteer, I prepared safe supply kits with staff and fellow students for harm reduction. I also actively engaged with the community members by conducting surveys to understand their programming, support, and shelter access needs. Through this experience, I contributed to Street Health's mission of providing low-barrier, accessible, and equitable services while advocating for the community’s needs.

In parallel, I volunteered at CanPKU+, a non-profit advocating for rare diseases like phenylketonuria (PKU). Although PKU is a well-studied genetic disorder, there is a knowledge gap for patients and physicians concerning new recommendations for PKU therapies. As a result, older PKU patients are often left in the dark as they may be off diet therapy, which unknowingly contributes to their lifelong cognitive symptoms. As the Chair of the Continuing Medical Education (CME) webinar committee, I led two undergraduate teams in outreach and planning a PKU webinar.

Through this webinar, my goal was to connect metabolic specialists with other physicians to educate them about the lifelong cognitive effects of PKU and the latest treatment practices. I hope this better equips physicians to identify PKU-related cognitive symptoms in their older patients, thereby opening access to new treatments and support resources for those affected.

In addition to developing leadership skills, I have had the chance for academic and professional growth through research. After my third year of undergraduate studies, I completed a Professional Experience Year (PEY) in Dr. Ann Graybiel's lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This position was independently obtained outside the PEY portal and self-funded through various awards amounting to $42,000 CAD.

While there, I investigated the corticostriatal circuitry underlying cost-benefit decision-making and learning and its implications on mood disorders. Beyond learning techniques like electrophysiology or neurochemical sensor fabrication, I was exposed to various mentorship styles by research scientists in the lab, further fostering my scientific curiosity and independence as a researcher. I also had the chance to mentor new technicians and students in the lab. Ultimately, I aim to draw on my PEY experience to become a better leader and mentor to provide to my peers.

In conclusion, my involvement in course unions, mentorship programs, non-profits, and research endeavours, has taught me the qualities of an empathetic leader. By actively listening to those around me and valuing diverse perspectives, I am motivated to promote fair access to resources, foster the professional growth of my peers, and facilitate a sense of community. Ultimately, I am most proud of my accomplishments as a student leader defined not by quantitative metrics but rather, by the positive impact I have had on my peers’ personal and professional growth. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow with my peers as I take on the challenges ahead.