Tragic loss motivates UAA student to pursue career in oncology

March 21, 2017

UAA Professor Holly Martinson, left, and her student, Lee Wang, work together on cancer research in the UAA ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. (Photo by Philip Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Lee Wang is the youngest child in what she referred to as a “traditional Hmong family” of nine brothers and one sister.

Her family left Laos during the Vietnam War; her father is a Vietnam veteran who brought his family to Sacramento, California in 1989 — Lee and her older brother were born in the U.S. The family moved to Alaska when Lee was 8.

Because of limited educational opportunities back in Laos, her parents did not get the opportunity to earn a degree.

“When they arrived in the United States, it was hard for them to learn English because Hmong was the only language they know,” she said. “Also, because of the many children they had to take care of, they did not get the chance to go to school to learn English.”

While they didn’t have college degrees themselves, her parents encouraged Lee and her siblings to do well in school “so that we can get a good job to support ourselves and our family. Most importantly, is to gain the knowledge.”

Lee graduated from Bartlett High School in 2011 and enrolled at UAA, where she is a dual biological sciences and natural sciences major, with a minor in psychology. She graduates this spring.

Outside academics, Lee is also a Hmong dancer who has performed many times at the Alaska Hmong New Year Celebration in December.

Lee wants to become a doctor and is laying the groundwork not only through her classes but through her work in UAA’s PreMed Club, where she serves as treasurer, and her participation at the Alaska PreMed Summitthe 2017 Alaska PreMed Summit is scheduled for 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday, April 1, at UAA’s Rasmuson Hall.

Both high school and college students are welcome to attend the free event, which, this year, offers sessions about nontraditional medical students, pre-college preparation and volunteer and job-shadow experience, and information about undergraduate preparation and research; osteopathic medicine; pharmacy practice and administration; physician assistant and MEDEX programs, and hands-on learning and networking opportunities.

Lee talked to us about her journey toward a career in medicine:


How did you come to be interested in studying medicine?

It was not until my junior year of high school that I decided I want to continue my education and become a medical doctor. My parents, especially my mother, inspired my career goals. She was diagnosed with type II diabetes several years before I was born and I have known her my whole life to be diabetic. Because of her health issues, including diabetes and arthritis, I want to do something in return to her for all the many years she has been taking care of me. Several years passed and my mother lost a lot of weight, lost her appetite. No one in my family knew why — even her personal-care providers couldn’t figure out her massive loss of weight. It was not until three months before her [death] in 2013 that her provider found a tumor in her uterus. When we took her to the hospital, her tumor had metastasized to Stage IV and there wasn’t much the doctors could do to help her but suggest chemotherapy. Sadly, chemotherapy did not work and I lost my mother a month later, after her first treatment.

Before, I just wanted to become a general practitioner, but after the loss of my mother, I wanted to go into oncology.


How did you first learn about premed?

Medicine has always been my interest. I have always wanted to treat people so they can feel better. I talked to my high school counselor and he helped me choose a major that premed students usually choose. He suggested biological sciences, since a biological sciences degree has all the premed courses I needed to get into a medical college. In college, I talked to the biological sciences advisors and they referred me to the premed advisor here at UAA.


What steps did you take in your life to expand your knowledge of the opportunities available in premed?

I volunteered at Providence Alaska Medical Center in pediatrics and the cancer center. Besides volunteering, I also participate in cancer research here at UAA with Dr. Holly Martinson.


How did you first learn about the Summit?

I first learned about the Summit by joining the UAA PreMed Club.


What insights did you gain when you participated in the Summit — what sessions most engaged your attention, and why? 

The most engaging session to me was when medical students told their stories about their preparation to get into medical school. The following questions from the crowd were also useful for anyone wondering what preparing for medical school is like.


What have you been doing at UAA since the Summit?

I have been doing research here at UAA since the Summit. I am currently working on my project, focusing on multiple primary breast cancer in Alaska Native patients, for which I received a grant through the UAA Office of Undergraduate Research. I will be presenting my research at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) on April 1.


What are your goals, now?

I will be graduating this spring. I have not had much time to study for the MCAT, so I will be studying for the MCAT this summer and planning to take the MCAT before the cycle ends while working a full-time job. I have not have the chance to shadow doctors, so this summer, I will be doing that, too. I plan to send applications throughout the U.S., but most importantly, hoping to get into WWAMI so I get to stay close to home where my family is.


Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage

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