June 15, 2017

Nancy Lum and Alec Yu were fresh out of high school when they met at Science Frosh three years ago. This fall, the pair will begin studies at UBC medical school – even though neither have completed their undergraduate degree. According to UBC’s website less than 15 per cent of students are accepted in this elite category.

The two biomedical physiology majors are clearly exceptional students with outstanding GPAs and a long history of volunteerism and student engagement. Yu says that their personalities complement each other and that he looks forward to debating and reflecting on their daily experiences.

“I’m definitely excited to be going to school together, and I know she will help make me a better clinician,” he says.

Adds Lum, “We’re very lucky to receive early acceptance and to be able to support each other through medical school."

Both Yu and Lum have been interested in medical careers since high school, but different personal experiences solidified their choice.

Yu was only four years old when he was diagnosed with a heart defect. Surgery to correct the problem went reasonably well, but post-operative complications affected his physical and mental well-being, creating additional anxiety for Yu and his parents.  

The experience stayed with Yu and surfaced when, as a teenager, he began volunteering with transitional housing shelters and the Canadian Red Cross.

“I thought about what it would be like to make medicine more friendly and accessible to a larger population," Yu says. “Physicians and surgeons shouldn’t just treat patients, but also educate and advocate for them so that they become empowered to take care of themselves.”

Lum considered other career paths but became interested in medicine after her father sustained a serious injury several years ago. She recalled the devastating impact on her family and the trauma that her father suffered. His physical issues were treated, but concerns like mental health and family dynamics were largely overlooked. She is looking forward to giving these issues more attention in her future practice.

“My mother practices traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and while there are broad vast differences between the principles of her practice and those of Western medicine, there are also aspects of TCM that I identify with, such as its holistic approach to problem-solving,” says Lum.

Yu is also excited to bring change to the field, but his goal is to use entrepreneurship and innovation to tackle problems.

“I believe some principles of entrepreneurship can be applied to create sustainable and powerful change, if undertaken with sensitivity to the realities of medical practice," he says. 

Yu and his SFU teammates recently won the international Oxford Global Challenge for their analysis and solutions to the issue of medical waste production. With prize funding, Yu continues to search for solutions to the problems of over-packaging and single-use equipment that is often discarded unused. He hopes the data he collects will demonstrate economic and environmental benefits and motivate hospital administrators to reduce wasteful hospital practices.

While Lum looks forward to the challenges of medical school, she credits SFU for providing her with undergraduate research opportunities that can be difficult to find at other institutions. Lum says an introductory research course gave her the confidence to apply for an Undergraduate Student Research Award. She is grateful to Kevin Lam for teaching the course and to Glen Tibbits whose lab provided her with valuable research opportunities.

Yu is somewhat torn at leaving SFU before having had the full opportunity to explore his many passions. Besides spending three years in Peter Ruben’s Molecular Cardiac Physiology lab, he also explored history, design, and social entrepreneurship. He’s intrigued by anything that challenges his assumptions and makes him think about problems in a different light. Yu hopes to apply his aptitude for interdisciplinary problem-solving throughout medical school and well into his career.

Yu says, “I try to consider each issue from many perspectives. I’m interested in pushing myself to solve problems in new ways while learning in the process.”

The pair is excited to be joining a diverse group of new classmates.  

“It’s a bit intimidating to be surrounded by so many incredibly successful individuals,” says Lum, “but I’m excited to learn from people from all walks of life and academic disciplines.”

Yu sums it up, “We’re nervous but we’re definitely excited. It’s going to be an adventure.”