Humanizing Medicine with the Written Word
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 11:17
Photo courtesy of Jingwen Zhang '18
Zhang dedicated herself to a variety of activities on campus, including The Student, GlobeMed and Amherst Christian Fellowship.

From her days in high school, when she was the captain of her science olympiad team and learned how to play both the piano and flute, to when she came to Amherst as a Schupf scholar and eventually became editor-in-chief of The Amherst Student, Jingwen Zhang’s future has always been as bright as her smile. Her easy-going and sincere personality, along with her motivation and leadership, has made her years at Amherst unforgettable — both for her and everyone around her. Zhang led her peers from her position on the e-board of Amherst Christian Fellowship, created advocacy, outreach and education initiatives for GlobeMed at Amherst and handled countless medical emergencies as a member of Amherst College Emergency Medical Service (ACEMS). She is a true interdisciplinary scholar, pursuing the pre-med track, exploring many of Amherst’s humanities departments and developing her excellence as a writer, in the classroom and out. Her extensive contributions to our community will last long after her time at Amherst comes to a close.

Blooming on Amherst Grounds
Zhang began her journey in China, moved to Chicago when she still had baby teeth and grew up in Columbus, Ohio. She quickly overcame the “culture shock” of coming to Amherst and began to explore and nurture her interests. As one of the few Schupf scholars at Amherst, Zhang saw firsthand how “there were faculty who were willing to invest in me when I was just a freshman who knew nothing.” The Schupf scholarship allowed Zhang to receive access to faculty advising and research funding opportunities to explore her interests. Working with her Schupf advisor, Professor of Biology Caroline Goutte, she quickly realized that Amherst was different from the other colleges she had considered during the application process. Her early connections with Amherst faculty not only gave her confidence but also inculcated a profound appreciation for the humanities on top of her passion for science. “Biology is about figuring out how life works, but the humanities are about what gives life meaning,” Zhang said.

Zhang already had a tentative interest in becoming a doctor when she arrived at Amherst, but over her four years in Western Massachusetts, this interest developed into a whole-hearted passion for the field and its mission to help others. Zhang is sure to note that her passion for medicine did not come “as a lightbulb moment,” but rather blossomed through a sustained, regular commitment to expanding her experience in the field.

“I was able to connect with Amherst alums and shadow them, and I saw how people were able to use their own training for good,” she explained. The altruism in the field of medicine — “elevating other people’s needs before your own” — resonated with her Christian belief in the value of service, duty and care for those in need.

At Amherst, she also grew into her Asian-American identity. Her academic experience with Professor of American Studies Franklin Odo — “such a genius, leader and funny guy” — taught her to never be complacent with her Asian-American identity, to always ask how it “affects the way I perceive things.” A year after taking his course, WWII and Japanese Americans, she took a Schupf-funded trip to San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and Seattle to explore archival materials and the oft-ignored history of Asian-American communities. Her time with museum curators and other scholars shattered the one-dimensional image of Asian Americans that is pervasive in both “media and even higher-education.”

She tied in her growing awareness of Asian-American identity with how she expects to serve her patients in the future. A doctor who treats you, she believes, should place “pain and hardship in the context of who you are and what you’ve experienced.”

Zhang, according to close friend Zoe Wong ’18, is incredibly talented across a number of disciplines. “Jingwen … won awards in three different departments at Senior Assembly in addition to writing a thesis, which really demonstrates that quality,” Wong said. “She is also able to balance those impressive academics with extracurriculars and spending time with friends.”

Seong Eun Jung ’18, another friend, noted that this commitment to both her work and her relationships shows a lot about her character. “She is pretty understanding and caring,” he added.

Rising for Amherst Uprising
Zhang began writing for the news section of The Amherst Student in the spring semester of her first year. When she became the main Student reporter for the Amherst Uprising movement in November 2015, she had little idea that this would be foundational in her development as a journalist.

“With an emotionally-charged issue, you want to avoid making mistakes, which is why I approached the issue cautiously,” she said. With passion and indignation rising across the campus, some students questioned why Zhang kept “reporting the events objectively” without ever taking the students’ side. Shortly after the student movement, the college got rid of Lord Jeffery Amherst as its unofficial mascot, and Zhang faced another flurry of complaints, this time from alumni who called to let her know that they “didn’t like that the protests were happening.”

Zhang was determined to remain true to both journalistic ethics and journalism’s mission of balance. Nevertheless, she recalls, “it was a tough time covering those protests,” admitting that she hit a couple rough patches along the way. In trying times, Zhang sought respite and strength from both her editor-in-chief, Sophie Murguia ’17, and her mother, who is an experienced journalist herself.

“Not everything in news falls together in a neat fashion for you to write about,” Zhang explained. With contentious and heavy issues, she said that at times, it was “difficult sticking to the same set of rules.” Yet, she persevered and found her stride amidst the heat she faced — “you get used to it, and you keep writing what you write.” As an aspiring journalist myself, it was reassuring to hear from someone whose commitment to journalism’s code prevailed over emotion and personal whim.

In the spring semester of her junior year, Zhang was promoted to editor-in-chief of The Student. She led the newspaper with Drew Kiley ’18 for two semesters, covering the reveal of derogatory email exchanges between members of the men’s cross country team, the student uproar over new housing policies of gender quotas and the discovery of a noose on Pratt Field, among many other stories. Working with the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) to budget funds and resources, she also facilitated The Student’s transition from being an independent to a college-supported newspaper. The Student staff members she has personally mentored, including managing news editor Shawna Chen ’20 and current editor-in-chief Isabel Tessier ’19, cited her support as integral to their journalistic experiences at Amherst and thanked her for all that she has given to the paper. Her years-long investment in the student newspaper is visible in all of its sections, and her impact on editors and writers will continue long after she leaves Amherst.

Fascination, Failure and Fulfillment
In her final year at Amherst, Zhang crowned her love for biology with an honors thesis. Working with Professor of Biology Jeeyon Jeong as her advisor, Zhang attempted to better understand iron transport proteins in plants. “Iron is super important for your body, for all your metabolic processes, and you can’t do anything without it,” Zhang said. “It’s essentially in all your cells and in all living beings.”

Although it became stressful towards the end, Zhang says that writing her thesis “was cathartic.”

“It was overall, a really good experience because it showed me how research works,” she said. It served as a refreshing alternative to “the research projects I did in high school that someone would set up for me, where a lot of the work was just replicating experiments.”

For Zhang, writing a thesis was a voyage into uncharted waters, in which easy and simple solutions were seldom found. Even when she asked her advisor critical questions, Zhang said Jeong would respond with, “Hmm … Looks like you have more work to do to figure it out.” Though her research topic was novel, Zhang said that she felt “lucky to have previous experiences to easily jump into lab research.”

And yet, lab work was only half the job. “Writing a huge document like that is no small feat,” she said, “ because you have to go into the literature, draw out any information you can and explain why what you did was important.”

“For a lot of people, you don’t get results that work out, which is fine,” she added. Not having all the answers, however, is part of the process. Rather, Zhang said, the important thing is to take that uncertainty and use it to “lay the groundwork for future experiments.”

With so much invested in such an extensive intellectual project, growth of character is inevitable. “It’s a lot of thinking, a lot of dealing with failure,” she said. Now, she is able to laugh about how often she would become frustrated, even on the verge of tears, when her yeast cultures failed to grow in the lab. However, she persevered through those painful moments for the sweet rush of discovery — that moment when she found something fascinating and thought, “Huh … this is really important.”

Beyond Amherst
When asked whether she wants to continue her research after graduating, Zhang candidly responded that she doesn’t care as much for biology research as she does for practicing medicine. She is looking to expand her horizons, explaining that she “can apply this love for science and love for learning in so many different ways beyond research.” Fortunately for biology departments across the world, she is still “keeping open the idea of doing research in the future.”

Underpinning this overall ambition for discovery is her consistent love for writing. “I really want to carry good communication and writing skills into my medical practice,” Zhang said. She has been inspired by several Amherst alumni who frequently write as practicing doctors, and she hopes to write for a publication in the future.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Zhang plans on taking a gap year after graduation to do medical writing. “It’s not like journalism writing,” she explains, “but presenting medical literature in a way where people can read, understand and pass on what I’ve written.” Making medical knowledge more accessible is crucial, Zhang said, since many doctors “don’t really know how to communicate things well to their patients and to the public. In an era where relationships between academia and the public can get tense, facilitating good understanding and communication is more important than ever.”

Nevertheless, she leaves Amherst with a heavy heart, having cultivated treasured memories and invaluable experiences. She did struggle along the way, she said, but learned to ask for help. “You have to learn to be humble — only when you admit that you don’t know something is when you can learn.” And continue to learn she will.