The Universe’s Cue Ball: How the Huang Fellows Changed My Trajectory

Huang Fellow Angela Huang reflects on her virtual summer experience.

With the Huang Fellows program being virtual this summer, I’ve spent a lot of time back home in New Jersey playing dozens of games of Billiards in the basement of my friend’s house. As we swirled around the table, carefully studying the array of colorful billiard balls, I’ve often noticed the many, many factors that can divert a shot against a player’s expectation. Especially as beginners, my friends and I often spent more time bending over in laughter at the strange directions the balls scatter than we do playing. The angle of the cue ball, the strength of the hit, and even the dust on the old pool table often spun the balls off course.

When I got the Huang Fellow acceptance letter, I felt an odd mix of emotions. Ecstatic and excited, of course, but also worried and a bit disappointed. When I had talked to previous Huang fellows, they had raved about the community they had made in their cohort, brought about by living together and engaging in midnight shenanigans. But this year, being virtual, I felt like I was missing out on the “Huang Summer Experience”.

My visions of exciting beach trips and movie nights turned into mornings of Zoom meetings and online talks. The direction of my summer had taken a rather dramatic turn.

I would get hit with my second disappointment a few weeks later when lab assignments came out: I wasn’t with a lab studying mental health. A passion of mine for as long as I can remember, I wrote my whole Huang application about researching ethical questions around mental health and suicide. Megan Richards, my freshman year RA and a previous Huang Fellow, reassured me. She told me to keep an open mind, to let things unfold. Perhaps I would love it, perhaps I would hate it. Regardless, trying out new activities is always a good thing, especially so early in college.

The truth of this advice really materialized as I circled the pool table. I may have bemoaned the green ball’s position three plays ago, but now it’s perfectly in front of my cue ball, just waiting to enter a pocket. Across the summer, this truth circled back to me over and over again, especially during our bi-weekly professional development talks.

As Duke’s esteemed deans, provosts, and professors discussed their professional lives, they chuckled at how often they changed career paths, how often their jobs took them across the country, and how often their aspirations and convictions were subverted. Much like the randomness of a pool break, they collided against other target balls and the pool table’s walls until they found their peace.

I realized in the middle of the program that I wouldn’t have gotten to hear these incredibly inspirational talks had we been in person: the opportunity to hear these stories came directly from the absence of my imagined Huang Summer Experience.

“I’m so glad that the universe’s cue ball decided to launch me into the Huang Fellows program: whatever happens moving forward, I owe a lot to the trajectory this summer’s experiences set me on.”

Huang Group Photo

As the summer went on, I very quickly got over my disappointment about my lab placement. Under the mentorship of Dr. Wenhui Mao and Kaci Kennedy, I was thrown into the beautifully complex world of health policy. I grew tremendously in my research capabilities: I learned to apply my coding and data analysis skills to work with real-life data, manipulating datasets, and creating beautiful (if I do say so myself) data visualizations.

I learned to read a variety of different sources that would inform my research: from methodology documents to health financing reports to health policy opinion blogs, I’ve expanded out of simply using pubMed or google scholar to find useful articles that could give context to my research.

But above all, I’ve gained an appreciation for the tangible application of health policy research. As a matter of fact, my original plans for my whole Duke education (and perhaps even my whole future) began to evolve as I became more enthused and immersed in health policy. I haven’t given up my passion for mental health research: in fact, I’m excited to explore how I could apply mental health policy to improve disparities in mental healthcare access worldwide.

Ultimately, my Huang summer has been filled with the constant subversion of my expectations. I would have never thought that the virtual nature of the program would have allowed me to hear so many new perspectives or that my lab would have been a perfect fit.

And yet, these events have completely propelled me to explore new futures for myself, with new mentors and new friends by my side. I’m so glad that the universe’s cue ball decided to launch me into the Huang Fellows program: whatever happens moving forward, I owe a lot to the trajectory this summer’s experiences set me on.

Angela Huang, Huang Fellow ’24

Huang_AngelaAngela a first-year student pursuing a Program II major that explores psychiatric disorders through the lens of disability studies and health policy.