By Chanapa Tantibanchachai, Associate Science Writer, University Marketing and Communications
Jason Chen will graduate in May 2015 with not only two majors and a minor, but also with multiple study abroad trips, research projects and a wide breadth of volunteer experience under his belt. Chen recently received the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship, which will fund nine months of research and living abroad expenses in Mexico, starting in August 2015. Looking forward, Chen will attend medical school to ultimately work with underprivileged communities.
Double majoring in biology and Spanish with a minor in international studies, Chen refused to settle by picking just one or a few of his many academic interests—he pursued them all.
Already able to speak a second language, Mandarin Chinese, Chen’s always been familiar with and fascinated by language. Though he took Spanish in high school, he first became conversational through the learning abroad program to Oviedo, Spain run by the U’s College of Humanities in 2011.
A year later in the summer of 2012, Chen took his second learning abroad trip to Peru. For three weeks, he was immersed in a language-intensive educational experience and conducted a public health study with local children. After that, Chen stayed on for an additional three weeks to shadow neurosurgery and trauma surgery at the University of Cesar Vallejo, where he learned how to identify certain hematomas and shadowed post-surgical procedures in the treatment of brain surgery.
When Chen returned from Peru, he began volunteering as an interpreter at the Maliheh Free Clinic in Salt Lake City, which is a free clinic for those at or below the poverty level, are uninsured and don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid. Those who come through the clinic are predominantly Spanish-speaking, so Chen gained the opportunity to practice his Spanish in a public health setting.
After returning from Peru to volunteer at the clinic, Chen saw how Spanish and language in general had a wholly different value in Utah.
“As an interpreter, it was interesting to see how physicians approach patients with whom they have a language barrier,” Chen said. “The role of an interpreter is to be the cultural bridge between the patient and the physician, but even then, you can’t fully understand the patient’s culture or value systems.”
Over the course of his two trips abroad and his time at the clinic, Chen solidified his love of language and recognized the importance of continuously seeking opportunities to improve his Spanish.
Chen then went back to the University of Cesar Vallejo as a student for a yearlong exchange from September 2013 to May 2014. He studied in the university’s philology department, focusing on an intensive combination of Spanish linguistics and literature.
Between his summer trips, Chen combined his academic training in biology and his interest in language by studying how bird songs serve as a model for human language development through the U’s biology department. Human language is learned through vocal activity the same way birdsong is, so Chen sought out to determine whether the quality of social interaction affects how well birdsong is learned and whether there is a genetic component related to song composition.
As a Global Health Scholar in the Honors College, Chen also explored cultural humility in medicine.
“Oftentimes, you hear the term ‘cultural competency,’ but that term isn’t as inclusive as it should be because it implies that there is a checklist you can complete before working with a certain group of people,” said Chen. “In a way, it prohibits natural interactions because you view a person from a certain culture as fitting in a narrow set of expectations.”
Conversely, cultural humility aims to take into account how each culture has a hierarchy of value and take all of the cultural knowledge into account while still focusing on the individual.
“Individuals pertain to certain cultures but are not representative of an entire culture,” said Chen. “The part does not represent the whole. We can all be aware of what some cultures may or may not expect, but we cannot assume individuals will follow those expectations.”
“Attending a large research institution like the U allowed me to pursue all of my interests. Professors and advisors never made me feel like my interdisciplinary interests were random, even though they seem outwardly unrelated. They encouraged me and helped me find a common link between everything I was passionate about studying,” said Chen.
Chen also credited the Honors College for his many opportunities for making the U feel more accessible by the small, liberal arts environment it fostered and expanding his mind to interdisciplinary research.
“The nature of research put my mind in a good frame to pursue future academic endeavors. Maybe the technical skills needed to analyze birdsong with software won’t translate well to many other activities, but the process of hypothesizing outcomes, setting up a research design executing research independently has been invaluable.”
Recently, Chen was accepted to medical school and would like to ultimately earn a Master of Public Health to work with underserved communities.
Chanapa Tantibanchachai is an associate science writer at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Utah commencement and convocation ceremonies are held annually at the conclusion of spring semester. Candidates for graduation from the summer 2014, fall 2014, spring 2015 or summer 2015 terms may attend. Commencement will be held on Thursday, May 7, 2015, at 6:30 p.m. at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. This year’s commencement speaker will be U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and U alum Robert McDonald. Honorary degrees will be awarded to Anne Cullimore Decker, Henry B. Eyring and Mark Fuller. For more information, please visit the Commencement Ceremony page.