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Terry Fox award winner overcomes adversity, embraces unique educational journey

September 15, 2021
Lisa Cao has overcome adversity and has been named this year's winner of the SFU Terry Fox Gold Medal.

This year’s Terry Fox Gold Medal winner has lived a life marked by poverty, abuse, and mental health struggles.  

When Lisa Cao reflects on her life so far, she marvels at her resilience as well as the community that supported her throughout some of her darkest periods. “When I compare myself [now] to my younger self, I know I wasn’t doing very well,” says Cao. “But now, I have a community around me that supports and helps me through the challenges.”

It was a lengthy list of challenges. Her mother engaged in drug trafficking, resulting in frequent moves from city to city, chronic neglect, sexual abuse and early alcohol use throughout her childhood. Every move disrupted her education and social life as she grew up isolated. When her mother fled the country abruptly, Cao was sent to live with her father in Vancouver.  

At age 13, Cao started working as a face and body painter to support her father and help ends meet while also going to school. Teachers and counselors encouraged Cao to participate in extracurricular activities for troubled youth. Eventually her grades improved, and her high school counselor further encouraged her to pursue post-secondary education.  

Cao started her degree at SFU in 2012. Without a support system available to her and under the immense stress of a full course load, work, and self-esteem issues, she attempted to take her own life. In 2016, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, leading to hospitalization. 

It was during these times, with the support of her medical team, that she found help through support networks and healthy coping mechanisms.  

Cao’s life experiences helped her to connect in a unique way to her studies. While taking her first neuroscience course, she became interested in the interplay of biological systems and environment. She saw how her lived experience mirrored new research on early childhood adversity, cementing her passion for the field and a desire to always keep going: “Pursuing neuroscience made me think seriously about a lot of the goals I had for myself, and what I would need to do to meet them. It encouraged me to take on a new direction for myself and reconcile a troublesome past.” 

In the face of these challenges, Cao found a community to support her as well as a cause to advocate for. 

She is passionate about advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in the field of neuroscience, and wants to pave the way for more gender and racial minorities facing socioeconomic barriers in academia. She also wants to support youth in Vancouver’s Chinatown, a community she has a personal tie to.

Cao heads the RLadies Vancouver Chapter. This is part of a global organization that promotes gender diversity in the R community, a programming language often used by statisticians. She also organizes the Hackseq Bioinformatics Hackathon, and started her own inclusive data science hackathon called the Vancouver Datajam with the support of SFU’s statistics department. 

In 2018, Cao founded the BiocSwirl Project, which recently won best talk at a major bioinformatics conference, and worked as a research assistant in two SFU behavioural neuroscience labs. 

She is currently a software engineer at a biotechnology company while she finishes her psychology degree at SFU and she has completed several data science internships. 

Now, she can add the Terry Fox Gold Medal to that list, an honour awarded to an SFU student who not only demonstrated courage in the face of adversity, but who also helped others in similar situations.

Cao relates her own experiences to Terry Fox and how he overcame his own challenges to create social change. When asked how she gets it all done, Cao points to her support systems, the causes she’s passionate about, and Terry Fox himself: “He went out of his way to do something greater than himself in a self-sacrificial way.” 

Join us in celebrating the 41st Anniversary of Terry's Marathon of Hope, honouring his legacy and raising funds in support of cancer research, Sept. 20-24. Visit www.sfu.ca/terryfox for further information.

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