Student SpotlightPracticing medicine would satisfy Allyson's deep desire to serve society and provide opportunity to directly impact healthcare in America. But a sudden course change heading into undergrad would begin four years of exploration and reveal new paths toward the same goal.
My parents REALLY wanted me to be a doctor. After moving from China to the US, they obtained Ph.D’s in biology from UT Austin. They raised me and my sister to understand that scientific research/development and accessible medical care is integral to the well-being of society. They worked hard to send us to a top Maryland public high school, music lessons/auditions, lab internships, SAT tutoring, etc. They even endorsed us watching Grey’s Anatomy (for the science, not the drama). They made sure we were competitive pre-pre-med students. And I would say it worked – I’m graduating from Duke next month and my sister is a sophomore at Stanford.
From Grey’s Anatomy to The West Wing
Shortly before graduating high school, I told my parents that I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore. I had worked in a windowless lab for two summers and was further discouraged by my ineptness at physics and chemistry. To say they were devastated is an understatement. They were staunch believers in medicine being the most prestigious and rewarding career field. And in many respects, I agree with them, especially having met Duke pre-med students who have been some of the most intelligent people I’ve encountered. I am grateful to have witnessed these students gracefully get through the organic chemistry classes, the volunteering, the lab work, the extracurriculars, and the med school application process. They have the drive and passion for helping people and are willing to endure four more years of schooling and even more years of residency, which is indubitably admirable.
Truthfully, I had no idea what I would make of my undergraduate education or my career trajectory. I wouldn’t admit it to my parents, but I was very concerned. If somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would laugh nervously and say “talk show host” just to get the other person to laugh with me and change the subject. But like many other students that come across Duke’s Initiative for Science and Society, I discovered that I was more interested in the broader application of science/medicine in policy and business. I loved learning about cutting edge medical technology, questioning the liability in potential malpractice of said technology, and analyzing health policy legislation. I pursued a B.A. in Public Policy and in hindsight, I’ve appreciated how interdisciplinary my academic endeavors have been.
Internships, Interviews, and Interests
After my first year of college and establishing a basic understanding of public policy, I started trying to build a professional foundation for myself. The summer after my freshman year, I was able to work for Intellerx, a start-up company in Silver Spring, MD that consulted mobile health companies on relevant policy. I researched how mobile health applications could be integrated in chronic disease treatment and FDA/CMS policy on manufacturing, marketing, and distributing the apps. That experience along with my past lab internship made me competitive for DukeEngage D.C., then supervised by Dr. Bob Cook-Deegan. I was immersed in the heated political atmosphere of the 2016 election year, and got to work with FasterCures, a non-profit think tank that works across sectors to establish more efficient methods of biomedical research.
I got to interview thought leaders in patient advocacy and research how global consortia were contributing to advancing chronic disease treatment. That summer truly solidified my interest in science and health policy. And I ran into and took a selfie with Senator Ted Cruz while I was running on the National Mall. So that was…interesting.
That same summer marked my first collaboration with Science and Society. After working for FasterCures and witnessing the political dynamic of Washington during the temperamental election year, I was ecstatic to see that there was a science policy undergraduate opportunity to help further my understanding of the legislative and regulatory process. I worked directly with Aubrey Incorvaia, the then director of Duke’s SciPol Program. I got to write science policy briefs and was deeply encouraged by Science and Society’s hospitality and passion for Duke students’ intellectual and professional development. I started learning more about Science and Society’s mission to explore ethical, legal, and policy questions in STEM. Working as a SciPol author taught me how to write effectively and efficiently, how to condense a mass amount of information and translate it for a lay audience. Although I was straying away from my past in STEM-heavy academics and internships, I felt confident in developing new professional skills such as policy analysis and writing.
As a SciPol author, I worked to directly translate regulatory action and language into concise briefs. But I wanted to conduct my own research that was related to science policy. I wanted to produce something that would let me come full circle in my interests – something that touched on medicine, policy, business, and ethics.
After my stint as a SciPol author, I was also lucky to work with Dr. Michael Clamann to write a report on the landscape of medical robotics. That fit the bill quite beautifully. The topic encompassed advancement in medical technology and the subsequent policy questions that come with approving technology that could drastically improve patient outcomes and satisfaction, but could also malfunction and provoke lawsuits and business failures. I ended my junior year with this comprehensive report and began to feel confident that I could further explore healthcare policy as a career.
The summer after my junior year, I wanted to get my feet wet in healthcare business and interned in the strategic market planning department of Kaiser Permanente. I felt that I had worked my way up in terms of company size. I went from working for a small start-up company to working for one of the biggest healthcare providers in the U.S. I had spent three years focusing on policy, so this opportunity let me get some exposure to the marketing and business side of healthcare. I spent the summer conducting market research that helped Kaiser Permanente launch its new medical offices in Northern Virginia, which culminated in a presentation to the marketing vice presidents. Kaiser Permanente was a company that my parents had actually heard of, which finally made them feel more comfortable with me taking my career into my own hands. I felt that I had proven that even if I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I could still play a role and make a difference in healthcare.
After my internship at Kaiser Permanente, I came across the S&S Certificate and realized that I had actually been inadvertently fulfilling the course requirements over the years. As it was the summer before my senior year, I was hesitant to add another academic recognition to my major and minor. But I wanted closure with the S&S electives I had accidentally been taking out of sheer interest. I wanted to get to know the organization more and take classes that were directly associated with the program. So, as a rising senior, I added the S&S certificate to my academic load, with only the core class and the senior capstone left in my requirements.
I also wanted to work with S&S in promoting its mission to prospective students and on campus. My interest in healthcare policy and business would not have been secure if I hadn’t worked as a SciPol author or completed my medical robotics report. I wanted to potentially help students in my position realize that becoming a doctor was not the only way to be involved in healthcare. For my senior year, I was able to serve as a work study student in S&S marketing and communications under Ben Shepard. In this position, I’ve helped make suggestions in marketing the M.A. degree, advertise S&S outreach events, and write profiles on M.A. alumni.
During my senior fall semester, I went began the process of applying and interviewing for jobs. After all of my internships and my time at S&S, I was determined to find a position that would tie my interests for healthcare, science, policy, and business together. Like the vast majority of Duke students, I felt intense pressure while subjecting myself to multiple unsuccessful case study interviews. I was always so uncomfortable and felt dejected after multiple curt rejections. Interviewees would question my “soft” professional skills and failed to understand the value I saw from my interdisciplinary academic and internship experiences. I almost didn’t attend the interview for the company I’ll now working for. My confidence was shot.
Although the interview process was long and exhausting, the conviction that my experience and diverse skillset would be a valuable contribution in this space drove me on. Gratefully, I will be working for GlaxoSmithKline in their Future Leaders Program. My particular division, U.S. Pharmaceuticals Commercial Management, will include three rotations in sales, marketing, and policy. I will then be offboarded into a permanent managerial role in the company, with the hopes of working my way up with the added possibility of going to graduate school. I’ll start in Philadelphia and will hopefully come back down to the RTP office for the 2nd rotation!
The Last Task
The last commitment of my undergraduate education is the senior capstone for the S&S certificate. My capstone consists of me and two other students, Sarina Madhavan, a Program II major studying “Medicine in the Genomic Era, and Madison Zamora, a bio major who is going on to work for the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research before heading to dental school. The capstone culminates in a final product and presentation for a stakeholder in the science policy community.
At the beginning of the semester, we sat down with Professor Misha Angrist over a hearty dinner of Heavenly Buffaloes to decide our client and our research topic. This process was particularly difficult because we had to find a project that would meet all our interests. My technical science background was minimal and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to contribute if we chose a “heavy” scientific topic.
We obtained the National Human Genome Research Institute as our client with Cristina Kapustij, Chief of the Policy and Program Analysis Branch (PPAB), as our project supervisor. We were also able to collaborate with Sonya Jooma, who graduated from Science & Society’s Bioethics and Science Policy Masters Program in 2015. She currently works as a health policy analyst in PPAB. We decided to research the full scope of telegenetics (providing genetic services via telephone/video conferencing) and barriers to its national uptake.
This topic really spoke to our backgrounds. While Sarina and Madison provided insight and understood genetics as a whole and the workings of genetic testing and counseling, I felt I was able to contribute to understanding the policy behind the coverage and reimbursement of telemedicine. At the same time, I was excited to learn more about patient-provider relationships and how in-person counseling differs from telecounseling in quality, convenience, and cost. As I will spend the first year at GSK as a sales representative, I think that learning about the trajectory of telemedicine will be invaluable as I interact with physicians and promote healthcare products. We will be presenting our findings to NHGRI in May, and I’m amazed that I have the opportunity to go back to D.C. and inform a governmental agency on the future of healthcare.
Hindsight is 20/20
I’m not going to be a doctor. But I’m proud to say that even though I started college with much trepidation, I’ve worked hard to create a path for myself that captures my interests and in the spirit of my parents, still allows me to better benefit society. I’ve realized that there is no one way to have a career in science and healthcare. I don’t have to be a doctor. I don’t have to be a scientist. I can approach healthcare disparities and societal issues from the lens of policy and business. And I have learned to become articulate in science policy and the enriching curriculum that is at the core of examining the ethics and policy of scientific and technological innovation. It has been an enriching four years, and I am thankful.
About the Author:
Allyson Luo graduated from Duke in 2018 with a degree in Public Policy and a certificate in Science & Society. During her time at Duke she contributed to Science & Society’s SciPol program and as a work-study student assisting with marketing and communications.