Talking Real Science with Michelle Wong

This episode of Share Science features Michelle Wong, a junior at the University of California Davis. Michelle is one of ten students who were recently awarded the Stem Research NIL award for promising undergraduate researchers. This award is part of’s commitment to support and mentor students who are at the beginning of their STEM education and careers. In addition to a grant of $5000 each, the ten award winners are collaborating with as brand ambassadors. empowers and connects scientists worldwide and accelerates scientific discovery with their digital research marketplaces, combining sophisticated AI technology with white glove research concierge support to enable scientists to run more innovative experiments in less time and at a lower cost.

To find out why over 100 biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies as well as the U.S. National Institutes of Health utilize their private enterprise marketplaces click here.

Where did you grow up? Have you always been interested in the sciences? And if not, what sparked your interest?

I’m from San Francisco, California. I grew up really close to Golden Gate Park, actually just two blocks away, and I think that was a really great place to grow up. I went to a middle school where I learned math in Cantonese up until seventh grade and then in Mandarin in eighth grade. Then I went to a public high school that was pretty well known for its STEM program. I feel like I’ve always kind of been interested in science just from how I’ve been raised by my parents. They’re both in healthcare. Very early on, they nurtured the idea in me that I could do whatever I want.

Growing up, one memorable story that really stuck with me was back in sixth grade in my geology class; it was the very first day, and I was super nervous. My teacher went to the class and was like, ‘All right guys, we’re gonna do a quick exercise. You have 20 minutes now, why don’t you draw what a scientist looks like to you?’ She gave us a piece of paper and all the color pens and crayons, typical sixth grade. Then everyone sat down, and we drew whatever we thought a scientist looked like. After about 10-20 minutes or so, she was like, ‘All right guys, let’s see.’ She walked around, and when she looked at my image, I had basically drawn myself 20 years older in a white coat with color beakers and bubbles popping out, and I think one of them was engulfed in flames and the laboratory was about to be destroyed. But that was the image I drew, and she was like, ‘Michelle, why did you draw a woman?’

Apparently, everyone else in the room had not drawn a woman. I think most people had drawn Einstein, with his crazy hair and then a white lab coat. And so she was like, ‘Michelle, why did you draw a woman?’ I was petrified, you know, sixth grade people, it was just a weird time. I was a transfer student, and I don’t like being called out.

“In a tiny voice, I was like, ‘Well, girls can be scientists, too’ and she’s like, ‘Yeah, exactly.'”

That was a very memorable experience; I’ve been lucky with my professors and have had really memorable teachers who shaped me. I also was really lucky that my parents believed in me and instilled in me that I could do whatever I want. It was never a question of ‘Can I do it?’ It was more like, ‘What area do I go into?’ That’s where I jumped off into college and applied undeclared to all my colleges and kind of just figured it out from there.

That’s an awesome story. I love the fact that you were the one to go outside the norm and not draw that Einstein character that everyone thinks a scientist is supposed to look like. Where are you currently studying? You said you were undeclared, so how did you get to the point that you are today? Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you’re currently doing?

I feel like I came into college kind of pre-med, just because my parents are both in healthcare. They’re like, ‘Michelle, it’s a good career path, you might want to consider it, it’s a lot of stability.’ So I came into college undeclared; I tried a lot of different things. I was a plant biology major for a few quarters, then I was a genetics and genomics major up until the end of my second year. Towards the end of my second, beginning of third year I realized I wanted to do something else. So, I decided to major in statistics, and that’s my current major. I’m in my third year going into fourth year at UC Davis, and it took a lot of exploring to get there. I am really grateful I wasn’t very stuck on one career path or one major, and I was very open to exploring. I took a few plant bio classes and realized I wasn’t super interested in it. I have been tutoring statistics since my freshman year, so I had that baseline. I guess I always knew I would do a stats minor. Then I was a genomics and genetics major for a while because I was doing retina-based genomics research. I thought that would be a good major, and then I realized how important coding was, and that I was really interested in it.

“I really liked the analysis part of research more than the collecting data part. I think the important lesson for me is not to just stick to one thing and to be open to exploring.”

As for my research, I joined a lab my freshman year. It was a wet lab based in a mouse model retinal generation lab where we were turning on and off searching genes in the mice and then seeing how that affected the retina in these mice. We would take out the eye, section it off, and stain it for what we were looking for, usually cell death or something like that. I was there for a year and a half, and then I transitioned over to my current lab, which is the Luis Carvajal-Carmona lab in UC Davis. There, I’m a bioinformatics researcher, so it’s more computational. I kind of just sit at the computer all day and I’m just a code monkey. I previously helped analyze or do quality control analysis between two different variant colors where we’re looking at specific or the whole genome sequencing genome samples. There’s the whole exome genome kind of thing, and we look for mutations in samples of people who have cancer. We’re just looking for mutations that could potentially have influenced the cancer or maybe caused it in some way. In order to do that, you have variant colors and different colors will call different variants differently. I was comparing and contrasting variant colors, and that’s how I got the scholarship.

My current project is a little more interesting, at least it makes a little more sense. I feel like the variant calling is a little more abstract. Currently, I’m working on analyzing 250 gastric cancer patient samples, and I’m looking for counts of two pathogens, H. pylori and EBV, also known as Epstein-Barr virus. It’s related to mono, the lip thing. It’s super interesting and these are pretty well known pathogens that contribute to gastric cancer. I’m just looking for the counts in the genome to see how much there is.

You mentioned a little bit about some research related to the eyes, and in your biography, you mentioned that when you were younger, you almost went blind due to high myopia. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you overcame that, and whether that experience had an impact on your decision to get into research?

Yeah, definitely. It’s a really interesting story, and I’m just putting it out there that I am not a clinical person, so anything I say may or may not be fully accurate, but I’ll just tell you what I know. I was born a little weirdly—I had a nuchal cord wrapped around my throat. I was born via forceps delivery, which caused ocular trauma. So my left and right eye have different prescriptions. My left eye at the time was myopic, and my right eye was presbyopic, so nearsighted, farsighted. I also have a family history of myopia— all my family members have it—my dad went legally blind. It’s just very, very bad myopia genes, I guess.

When I was really young, I had problems seeing the board in classrooms, and I had problems just reading. I went to an eye therapist who would help me see and read properly because my eyes just had a problem focusing. He would give me a little booklet, and then there’d be little characters, and he would ask me if they’re moving or not moving to help train my eyes to see properly. I don’t know what that was the result of, likely the result of the ocular trauma. My right eye still has a lot of corneal scarring from that.

From there, my myopia really kicked in when I was eight years old. My prescription was minus four point something, I think 4.7 diopters in my left eye. My right eye was plus one or something like that, which is really, really high for an eight year old. Minus ten diopters is legally blind, so I was basically halfway to becoming blind. My mom was really concerned, and she’s an optometrist, but luckily enough she heard about this new technology called Orthokeratology. It’s a hard contact lens that you wear at night, and it reshapes your cornea, basically halting the elongation of the eyeball, which is what myopia is. It basically just stopped my nearsightedness where it was at, which I couldn’t do on my right eye because it had corneal scarring. I was super lucky, as it was a technology not approved by the FDA, and I was one of the first people to adopt this technology in San Francisco. I’m honestly just super lucky my mom was an optometrist, and she heard about it.

“I was a guinea pig basically, and I don’t know what I would have done if it didn’t work.”

I was super interested in eye stuff initially, and I was dead set on becoming an ophthalmologist as a result of my past. I did a lot of clinical research previously in high school, too. I worked in an optometry office; I helped with the clinical trials for FDA stage three for Alcon contact lenses. Then I joined my first lab in UC Davis, which was the eye lab because I was really interested in the eyes. I came to realize, I actually didn’t like the eyes as much as I thought. It’s a lot of neurobio and some people are just really interested in the brain. I just realized I wasn’t one of those people. I transitioned after, and it’s just a matter of finding what you like and what you don’t like. I think my background really gave me a launching pad into science and research, but you don’t necessarily have to stick to your story or stick to a predestined path if you don’t really like it. I’m very grateful for my past, really grateful for the people who surround me, and yeah, just lucky I didn’t go blind.

Who has been the greatest influence on your career or your education path right now? And do you have a mentor that has played a significant role?

That’s a good question, I’ve been trying to pinpoint one person and I don’t think I can. There’ve been a lot of people in my life who have influenced me and it has varied depending on the stage of my life. I think when I was really young, my parents were definitely the biggest influence, as they should be in a kid’s life. They’re one of the reasons I chose to go to Davis; they actually went to Davis and met here. They are also the reason why I was interested in pre med in the first place. Once I got to college, I would say in each of the research labs I’ve been in, there’s always one really important woman who helped shape my experience and was really involved in training me. In my first lab, it was the junior specialist, Sonia Frick. In my current lab, it’s also the junior specialist, Katherine, and she’s really great at helping me whenever I don’t know what to do. If I write a piece of code and it doesn’t work, I can always just go to her and say, hey, this is what I’ve tried, and this is what’s not working, and she always helps me figure it out and validates my confusion, which I really appreciate.

My high school calculus BC teacher was a really great figure in my life and he also played a really pivotal role in my high school career. I remember when COVID first hit, he was the first person I reached out to and talked with about how I’m really worried about how COVID will affect my high school career. I wasn’t doing so hot during COVID because I couldn’t really focus. He was really great; I remember when I first got accepted into two colleges I called him up and said, hey, I’m debating between these two schools and he helped me choose. He was like, this is why I think you should choose this one, but it’s ultimately up to you.

Out of all these people, these teachers and mentors and family members, are there any qualities that you think you’ve noticed in them that you’d like to carry on when you eventually step into their shoes in the future?

I think the most key role or key characteristic I hope to bring from them is the ability to feel seen. I ask a lot of questions, and whenever they validate that or if they were able to break down a very complicated topic in a not so complicated way with visual diagrams and diffuse all the confusion in my head, I really appreciated and benefited from it, and I’m trying to also kind of be that person.

I started tutoring privately and have also been tutoring with the UC Davis academic assistance and tutoring center when I was a freshman. I tutor both individuals who ask me to tutor them, and also first generation college students, student athletes, and PhD students, sometimes. I mainly tutor statistics now because it’s just what is interesting to me. One thing I always try to bring back into the sessions, is that yes, it’s really confusing and a lot of these people had never touched code before. For a lot of them, it’s their first venture into R studio, and their first time kind of seeing all these equations. I really try to ground them and just remind them it’s a very, very steep learning process. It’s your first class, don’t let it discourage you from taking more classes like this in the future and just try to make the concept a lot easier to understand. I feel like we need a lot more women in fields like statistics or computer sciences, my data science class is 75% men. You know, it is what it is, so I really just try to encourage people to not just see the hard parts but try to get past it and really enjoy the process of fixing a problem or solving a bug.

My last question for you today is, do you have any advice for your younger students who are interested in getting into research?

I feel like it really depends on your situation, where you are financially, geographically and personally. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome, at least in my opinion, in science and a lot of self doubt that can creep in. I feel like a lot of work needs to be done within oneself first and then going from there. If someone is a high school student and interested in research, I recommend just reaching out to a professor in a university near them and saying, hey, “I’m so-and-so, and I’m interested in your research because of this reason. Do you have space for an additional undergrad or additional high school student in your lab?” Say what you can bring to the lab, or if you can’t bring anything, that’s OK. Just make it clear you’re super willing to learn. That’s how I got my first gig in high school; I interned at UCSF for a bit in the liver cancer lab. That really helped me get into or get into research really early on in college. I know specifically within the San Francisco Bay area, Stanford has a lot of great summer programs. San Francisco State has a lot of good PI’s who are really interested in mentoring. UCSF also has a lot of really great programs for all San Francisco public schools. Just kind of see what resources are available to you and make sure you know why you want to do it and know that if something doesn’t work out, it’s not you, it’s the cell’s fault for dying on you.

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