Graduate uses biochemistry opportunities at ASU to forge a path to medical school

April 25, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

For Connor Vuong, a senior in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, a soccer injury in high school left him with a broken finger that needed surgery, and a newfound appreciation for what it really means to be a doctor. Graduating senior Connor Vuong will attend medical school at the University of Arizona this fall. Connor Vuong, a graduating senior from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Molecular Sciences, will attend medical school at the University of Arizona this fall. Download Full Image

“I was 15 and it was my first time needing surgery, so I was kind of scared — talking to the hand surgeon about the procedure and recovery was just an eye-opening moment for me,” he said. “It showed me that medicine isn't just about simply assessing symptoms, it's about focusing on patients as individuals and the stories they bring.”

From that moment, Vuong set his sights on his own medical path. He applied and was accepted to some of his top choices for pre-med programs, including Berkeley, Emory University and the University of Southern California.

But finding a way to fund almost a decade of education between undergraduate studies and medical school worried him. Growing up southeast of the Tempe campus in Ahwatukee, he saw ASU as the more affordable option in his backyard.

“My family comes from a pretty middle-class background, and after touring all three of those out-of-state campuses, I realized that college is more what you make it,” he said. “I felt like if I was motivated, I could achieve the same success here at ASU.”

This May, Vuong will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from The College’s School of Molecular Sciences. And his motivation to find the opportunities to drive his career plans forward have paid off.

He spent three years working in the lab of Shengxi Chen, an associate research professor in the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Bioenergetics, where he researched how to improve early-detection testing methods for HIV and mentored younger student researchers.

As a Helios Scholar with the genomics research institute TGen, he now studies how the genetic codes of brain tumors can be used to develop more effective cancer treatments.

Vuong has also seized opportunities outside the lab. Competing yearly on The College’s Academic Bowl team, his team took first prize in three out of the four rounds he’s participated in.

This fall, his high school plans will come full circle when he heads to Tucson to attend medical school at the University of Arizona.

He answered a few questions about his time at ASU, where he’s headed next and the advice he has so far.

Question: What is something you learned while at at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise?

Answer: Beyond the research skills and techniques I've learned, I think I got a larger perspective on the many different fields in math and science. I was really fortunate to pursue biochemistry and medicinal chemistry specifically because I got to take classes that encompassed many different topics, even if they aren’t directly related to the things I’ll be doing later on in the medical field. Environmental science courses, biophysical labs, classes focused on quantum chemistry and mechanics — all of that was super interesting.

I think The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has fostered an environment where you get to experience a lot of different scientific perspectives that you wouldn't be able to if you were just fully focused on one area.  

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Shengxi Chen was instrumental in preparing me for research and medical school. He really believed in being open and asking questions. He encouraged people to understand why they were doing things, rather than just knowing how to do it in the first place.

In the classroom, Ian Gould and Kevin Redding both had lectures and exams that focused on applying knowledge instead of simply memorizing facts.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Anyone can just grind out their classes, get good grades and achieve academically that way.

But I believe it's way more important to distinguish yourself outside of your field and your grades, through extracurricular activities. And that’s not just in science, technology, engineering and math fields. If you're a journalist, try to apply for internships, for example. You should always look for extra opportunities to show that you're really passionate about the field you're going into, rather than just coasting by.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I actually prefer to study at home because I feel like it's a lot quieter, but I’m also partial to Noble Library. I like how late it's open and their quiet study rooms are very nice.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would try for one of the Millennium Prize Problems — a set of problems that carry a $1 million award if solved. They are the longest-standing questions we have in mathematics today.

Specifically, I would focus on the P vs. NPThe P vs. NP Problem questions whether all problems with quickly-verifiable solutions can also be solved quickly. If P = NP, then problems that appear very difficult would actually have relatively simple solutions. Scientists have grappled with the conundrum for decades. Problem, which looks at whether there is a distinction between NP (non-polynomial) and P (polynomial) algorithms. If those two forms are proven to be the same, that changes everything that we know about encryption, protein folding or even the mathematics behind a perfect game of chess, because it means those things can be solved using a strong-enough computer.

That problem really does have implications in numerous fields, so it’d be really cool to solve it.

Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


From leading campus tours to joining a medical brigade, biology senior pursued array of opportunities at ASU

April 25, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Cheyenne Piepmeyer is a self-proclaimed go-getter, and her resume supports that claim. Cheyenne Piepmeyer Cheyenne Piepmeyer will graduate in May with her bachelor's degree in biological sciences and a minor in Spanish. Download Full Image

Over the last four years, Piepmeyer has participated in a number of activities and organizations on and off campus including joining the Chi Omega sorority, volunteering with Devils in Disguise, leading tours with Devils’ Advocates, studying abroad in Spain, assisting in a brain tumor research lab, traveling with a medical brigade to Honduras and working at Camp Kesem during their weeklong summer camp for kids whose parents have or have had cancer.

“I’m one of those people who wants to take advantage of every opportunity that’s given to me,” said Piepmeyer, who is graduating this May with her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the School of Life Sciences and a minor in Spanish from the School of International Letters and Cultures. “I feel like there’s no issue with trying; failure is just a step to figuring out what’s right.”

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences student said she plans to attend medical school next and eventually work as an emergency room physician.

“Through BIO 390, I got to work in a hospital in downtown Phoenix for a semester. I’m an adrenaline junkie so I just loved the constant new experiences and new patients and new traumas,” she said. “I feel in that position, every day will be a new challenge; there’s always something new to learn and I’m still getting that patient interaction while stimulating my brain and using critical thinking skills.”

Piepmeyer said she’s experienced unique opportunities and moments at Arizona State University, like seeing the direct impact of her role as a Devils’ Advocate.

“One full circle moment was when a student I gave a tour to ended up being one of my residents and he told me I was one of the reasons he decided to come here. That was a really awesome moment to know I was giving back and that I helped impact someone’s decision to come here.”

And in her work in the research lab, Piepmeyer was able to help with a disease that she has a personal connection with.  

“That was a unique experience for me because that’s the brain cancer that my grandma had passed away from. I felt an intimate connection, and felt like once again ASU was giving me this opportunity to give back to a community that I was deeply rooted with,” she said.

Piepmeyer shared more about her experiences at ASU and her plans for the future.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: Science is something that’s always fascinated me. I’ve always loved the way things work, like taking them apart and putting them back together and biology has always been a puzzle to me. I like that with the scientific process, although the answer isn’t always easily found, there is a process to find it in a laid out way. So I can’t say there was one specific moment but I think I’ve always had that passion for biology.

I started studying Spanish in high school and had a deep appreciation for the Spanish culture — how it’s very family oriented and has a lot of deep-rooted tradition. Beyond that, I think it’s really important to be able to communicate with more people and in wanting to go into the field of medicine, being able to connect with Spanish speakers is really important.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Three courses collectively, poverty and global health, politics of women’s health and intro to health professions (and the U.S. health care system), have really changed my outlook on medicine and opened my eyes to the aspect of social determinants of health that previously I wasn’t really aware of.

It’s really given me a broadened perspective of how physicians can treat people as a whole person instead of just a disease. So, really looking into the impacts of socioeconomic status or gender or sexuality and all these different aspects that play into medicine. Even beyond that, outside of medicine, just being able to take each person as an individual in their own story. That transcends into my role as a community assistant. I’ve really gotten to see students from all walks of life, from all over the world, and hearing their stories and being able to treat everyone as individuals.

Q: Tell me more about your role as a CA:

A: I applied at the end of my freshman year and I’ve continued it my sophomore, junior and senior year, the first two years as a community assistant and now I’m a senior community assistant. I think I’ve always been drawn to helping others in a mentorship, leadership role. I’ve always loved seeing that development and getting to work with individuals. I’ve enjoyed getting to have those relationships with the freshmen. For some of them, they need you to be their best friend, you’re helping them through relationship or roommate problems or for others it’s more academically focused. I love the intimate relationship aspect; it makes me feel like I’m making a difference on this campus. I love giving back and I feel like this one of the ways I can give back to the ASU community that has given so much to me.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I believe in honesty: ASU was not my first choice. I applied here because when I toured the school I really fell in love with it but coming into college I had it in my head that I really wanted to go to Texas, but financially, due to the scholarships and opportunities that I was given at ASU, I chose here. Now that I’ve completed my four years, I could not imagine myself anywhere else. I think there are so many opportunities I’ve been given at ASU that I would not have had elsewhere that have really shaped me as a person and shaped my experience. And the weather is perfect.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I don’t think I’ve ever talked to her about this but Amber Wutich. I took her class, poverty and global health. Although it wasn’t an explicit lesson, she was my first real introduction to what all is involved in health and medicine. She really opened my eyes to, on a global scale, all the issues socially with medicine as well as scaling it back to the U.S. She really shaped my perspective on medicine.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: First and foremost: you are most important. Put your mental health first when it needs to be. At the end of the day, you’re achieving so much that you shouldn’t be getting caught up on little things. Getting a "C" on a paper or in a class is not the end of the world. Strive for those "A’s" but celebrate those little moments and don’t focus on little failures. Also, putting yourself out there and not being afraid to take charge of what you want in life.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Air Apparent. I learned about it when I was in Devils’ Advocates and I think it’s such an underappreciated part of campus. It’s so peaceful and calm and it feels like you’re escaping campus and the outside world.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I had an "aha" moment about a year ago that I wasn't quite ready to apply to med school at that point. I took my MCAT in March and I plan to apply to medical school in May. I’m moving back home to California for a year where I intend to get my EMT license and work as an EMT for the following year and then hopefully start medical school in 2020.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: $40 million I’ve come to learn is not that much money. Something I’m intimately connected with, something I want to go into with my future profession and something we’ve debated a lot about in my classes is whether we have the right to healthcare. Although $40 million wouldn’t fix the health care system by any means, I would like to be able to provide more clinics for people in lower income areas.

Kirsten Kraklio

Content Strategist and Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences