KUEC biotech student Kaitlyn Sy focuses on positivity, collaboration, and creativity to empower herself and those around her.
While studying biotechnology is not the most common pre-med degree, Kaitlyn Sy is confident that her undergraduate study at KU Edwards Campus (KUEC) is preparing her in the best ways for her future in medicine. Through a combination of lab and academic research, supportive faculty, and community involvement, Kaitlyn uses every experience to reenforce her commitment to her education and enhance the future of those around her – including creating a short “Day in the Lab” video highlighting that KUEC life and research opportunities are one-of-a-kind and fun.
Find out more about Kaitlyn’s video, research, and journey at KU Edwards.
What is a typical day in your life like?
Let’s put it this way: I seldom have a dull moment!
I begin most mornings with a good breakfast. I also use the time to reflect on my goals and review my schedule for the day.
I then drive to KUEC. Most days, I head straight to RC10 (the Biotechnology Lab) either to work on a lab for a class or to conduct experiments for my undergraduate research project. One of the things I love about the KUEC Biotech program is the autonomy I have in the lab. Unlike the first two years of my undergrad, where my time in the lab was limited to designated class time and the work I was allowed to do was what was laid out in the protocols provided to me, here I am allowed to come into the lab whenever campus is open, and I am free to use the materials and equipment that I need to execute the experiments I design. My professors are usually down the hall or just a text message away in case I have questions or need help, but getting to design my own approaches to answering research questions and troubleshooting problems has been central to my growth as an emerging scientist.
I attend my classes from mid-morning to early afternoon, and class is anything but passively watching my professor read through slide after slide of a PowerPoint copied and pasted from the textbook. Instead, my classmates and I get hands-on experience with new lab techniques, discuss how these techniques apply to real-world scenarios, and get detailed feedback on our work. Sometimes we even play a Kahoot game to review material in a fun way!
Depending on the day, after classes, I either head to the local cancer center where I volunteer, go to work, or continue lab experiments. At the end of the day, I head home and eat supper with my family, then I do homework, analyze data from my experiments, and prepare for the next day.
During the semester, I have long and full days, but I find it very fulfilling!
What makes you the happiest?
Many things make me happy, so it’s difficult to pick one thing that makes me happiest. However, being with family and friends makes me happy, and learning new things brings me a lot of joy!
What motivates you?
If I were to sum up what motivates me in one word, I would say it’s “improvement.” My goal is that, in everything I do, I either improve myself or those around me (or both) — whether it be to deepen my understanding of the world, strengthen my character, build other people up, or improve the circumstances of other people.
How did KUEC meet your personal and/or academic needs?
KUEC has provided me with lots of opportunity for growth.
One of the things I’ve appreciated most about the KUEC Biotech program is that the faculty met me where I was when I started in the program, but they challenge me appropriately to help me reach my full potential. Having done most of my prerequisite courses online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had limited lab experience, but Dr. Logan and Dr. Treml were both patient and encouraging as I learned. It’s hard to believe that, within less than a year in the program, I’ve progressed from barely knowing how to use a pipette to being able to design and run my own assays.
Another thing that I’ve enjoyed during my time at KUEC is the opportunity to work as a Transfer Ambassador. In this role, I assist with recruitment events, campus tours, and social media outreach. This job has given me lots of practice in communication, teamwork, and leadership, as well as plenty of opportunities for networking and professional development, all while providing me with an avenue to make a positive impact on campus and in the community.
How has your degree prepared you for the future?
Biotechnology is not the most conventional pre-med degree. Most pre-meds choose to take biology, biochemistry, or microbiology, and most KUEC Biotech graduates either find a job in the industry or proceed to grad school, but not typically med school. However, I am finding that the KUEC Biotech program is a great pre-med major. While it may not be as heavy on the conceptual science courses (like anatomy and physiology) as more conventional pre-med majors, it has provided me a solid foundation on the basics (like chemistry, physics, and microbiology). Plus, the major is very flexible when it comes to electives, so with the help of my academic success coach Renee, I’ve been able to customize my degree to best prepare me for med school. In addition to the classes, the emphasis on practicing research skills has strengthened my critical thinking and analysis skills, something vital to medical doctors.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I have loved creating art for as long as I could remember. As a child, I dreamed of becoming an artist one day. As I got older, my career goals changed, but I continued to pursue my interest in art on the side, mostly through self-teaching. My favorite piece so far is a 2:1 anatomical model of a human heart, cut down the middle to reveal the chambers and valves inside, and with hollow and interconnected blood vessels and chambers to allow tracing of blood flow through the heart. A fun fact about this heart model is that I sculpted it from upcycled wax from over 60 Babybel cheeses, collected over several months. I had the opportunity to have it exhibited at a Phi Theta Kappa convention, where it won first place in achievement in art and sculpture.
What was the most difficult part of earning your college degree and how did you overcome it?
The most difficult part of earning my college degree was during the second semester of my freshman year (spring 2021), when I was still working on my prerequisite courses for my Biotech degree. After a rapid deterioration in health, my sister and best friend was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor, requiring emergency surgery. At the time, the COVID situation in the area was still bad, so the hospital allowed only one visitor per patient at a time. As the family member with the most knowledge about the medical field, I took it upon myself to serve as the liaison between the hospital staff and my family, a heavy responsibility on its own but even heavier when piled on top of a full load of challenging classes and my job as a biology tutor.
The ordeal brought my family closer together, and we were also surrounded by supportive friends. I also viewed it as part of my training in the medical field. Being on the family’s side will help me be a more empathetic physician, and needing to juggle responsibilities has grown my time management skills and my ability to hold up under pressure. Not to mention, caring for my sister in the hospital and bringing her to outpatient rehab and follow-up appointments gave me plenty of exposure to different healthcare professionals in a variety of settings, which helped solidify my decision to want to become a physician.
What is your favorite memory of your time at KUEC?
That’s a hard one since my time at KUEC has been enjoyable. One of my favorites was taking my family to see the movie Awakenings at one of the SciFlix movie nights hosted by my professor Dr. Treml. The movie (based on a true story) was about the experiences of a neurologist and his patients with the drug L-dopa, used to treat Parkinsonism. Although the movie was made over 30 years ago, it had a touching message about the healing power of genuine love and compassion, a message still relevant today. Following the movie was an intriguing Q&A session with Dr. Rajesh Pahwa, a neurologist doing research on Parkinson’s disease. My family and I all enjoyed the evening, and we continue to go to SciFlix movie nights.
What are your long-term career goals and how do you plan to achieve them?
I want to serve Kansas as a medical doctor. Although I am not completely sure what area of medicine I would like to specialize in, I am very interested in clinical research. Clinical/hospital rotations in med school will probably help me choose a specialty, but until then, I will continue to hone my research skills through my undergraduate research project and upcoming internship and make use of opportunities to gain clinical experience.
What advice would you give others who are thinking of earning a degree, whether a first-time bachelor’s, a second bachelor’s, or a master’s?
There’s a quote by Zig Zigler that I think about whenever I am faced with a major decision: “Making a big life change is pretty scary. But you know what’s even scarier? Regret.” My point in citing this quote is this: yes, choosing to pursue a degree can be scary at the beginning (and quite honestly, it could still be scary sometimes at any point along the way), but it could also be immensely rewarding — not just when you graduate, but even during the years you spend earning the degree.
My advice would be to talk to people about your thoughts. Ask trusted family and friends what they think would be good for you. Meet up with an academic advisor or career coach to discuss your options. Find people who have taken the degree(s) you are considering or who are working in the field you’re interested in and ask them what it’s like. Shadow them if you can.
Your “Day in the Lab” video is a great mix of fun and information. Why did you make it and why do you think it is important to share with the KUEC audience?
I made a short video about what a lab day is like as part of an Instagram recruitment effort. To be honest, when I first learned about the KUEC Biotech program about four years ago, I didn’t even half know what biotechnology is, and I know I’m not the only one. If many people don’t know what biotechnology is, they probably wouldn’t know what it’s like to be a biotech student either, so I made the video.