Q&A With Emily Kwon '20

This article is part of the ongoing Senior Thesis Spotlight series.

Emily Kwon is a senior neuroscience major hailing from central New Jersey. She aspires to go into medicine and plans to take a gap year or two before applying for medical school. On campus, she has been part of the orchestra and chamber music programs, ACEMS (our on-campus emergency medical services), and the First Baptist Church Five College community. A few of her most memorable experiences during college have been studying away at Wellesley College—her sister and mom’s alma mater—her junior fall semester, working in a neuroscience professor’s lab, and teaching English in China for two summers. She is an avid baker and loves learning languages.

Q: Why did you decide to do research?

A: I had some experience with wet lab research in high school but chose to spend the first few years of college exploring other interests. In my junior year, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a thesis during my senior year, so I decided to join a neuroscience lab while I was studying away at Wellesley College in the fall of 2018. The lab I joined focused on glutamate transmission in C. elegans worms. As I performed experiments, I realized I really enjoyed the independent and collaborative aspects of research. When I came back to Amherst in the spring of my junior year, I was fortunate to be able to join Professor Goutte’s lab, since her lab also works with C. elegans but focuses on the gamma secretase complex and notch signaling pathways. When it came time to decide whether to pursue a thesis or not, I talked to a lot of my advisors and classmates who had completed or were still doing their theses for guidance. I think after both semesters of research, I could see myself doing a thesis, and I also wanted to get better at my skills. And now, since starting the process last June, I’m really glad I decided to do it.

Q: Could you briefly explain your research?

A: My research focuses on looking at a protein called the BCR (breakpoint cluster region) protein. It’s better known for its role in leukemia, but it’s also implicated in neuronal function, development, and memory. It’s basically an enzyme that speeds up the function of another protein called a small G protein. And I’m trying to isolate certain domains or regions of BCR in order to test whether those domains can increase the protein’s enzymatic function.

Q: Could you describe some of your summer experiences?

A: In summers 2017 and 2018, I taught English to children ages 5-19 in various camps across China alongside a team of university students from the UK and US. Through this experience, I realized I love teaching and mentoring and hope to go into a career that allows me to do this. In summer 2018, I also shadowed 20 different medical professionals for a month in various settings (in-patient, out-patient, Operating Rooms, Physical therapy centers). I really enjoyed observing the collaboration between physicians, technicians, and nurses as they helped patients and learning firsthand about the lifestyles and specialties of physicians.

Q: What does a day in your life look like?

A: My schedule allows for some flexibility as my thesis counts for two course credits. I have a twenty hour lab commitment, so I try to spread those hours over the week. Tuesday is my main lab day, so I’m usually there in the 2nd floor bio space from 9-5ish. But my lab schedule really varies depending on the experiments I’m trying to do during the week. Sometimes, I might need to go in on the weekends. On a typical day, I’ll try to start my mornings doing some work (emails, homework, job apps), go to class, and in the evenings get some MCAT studying done if I have the time. I try to schedule meals with friends or classmates at least a few times per week.

Q: Do you have any advice for underclassmen?

A: Some people say that college gets easier over the years, but in my experience, it doesn’t get easier, you just get better at handling everything. And I really do think that’s true. Learning to go to office hours regularly and actually time managing your schedule are things that have helped me a lot. I use Google calendar for all my meetings and class times, so I don’t forget anything and keep track of all my work. SLEEP. Definitely sleep. I think it’s taken me awhile to realize that. But, especially this year, I can’t really function without a good 7 hours, and I also feel so much better and clearer after a good night’s rest, which really helps me get through the day.

I would really encourage people to take advantage of the classes here. I

wouldn’t trade a better GPA for the more challenging classes I took (like intro to computer science, fiction writing, and various philosophy courses) because those classes are where I learned to really engage with the material and discuss with my peers, as well as access resources like office hours.

Also, I think it’s really important to just take a step back and breathe when things get overwhelming with clubs, work, internship apps, etc. Take a walk, go for a run or something, ask your advisors or mentors for advice, or reach out to your friends who love and support you. It can be so easy to get consumed by your inner voice, telling myself that I’m not good enough or that I did something really terribly. We’re so much more than just our GPAs or the activities we list on our resumes. It’s important to take care of yourself and to be kind to yourself.

Special thanks to Emily for participating in this interview about her thesis.

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