Class of 2023: Stepping outside her comfort zone

When Class of 2023 student Marytha Tan joined Duke Kunshan University four years ago, she decided it was an opportunity to step outside of her comfort zone.

That led the Malaysian molecular bioscience major on a journey of discovery about science, people, the world and herself, and to the realization that she could do just about anything she set her mind on.

“It sounds cliché, but indeed I learned that nothing is impossible because the word impossible denotes I am possible,” she says. “I learnt to be open to uncertainty and to see challenges as opportunities for me to grow and mature.”

Duke Kunshan Class of 2023 student Marytha Tan

The journey began in 2019, when Tan signed up to join Duke Kunshan. She was drawn to the university both because it felt like an opportunity to learn about her family’s roots and because its interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences curriculum offered her the chance to explore a range of subjects, while keeping science as her core focus. Tan’s great grandparents moved to Malaysia from Hainan, in southern China, and she grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese.

Once on campus, she was inspired, not just by the beauty and intricacy of Chinese culture, but also by the openness of the international student community she found herself a part of and the possibilities on offer.

Tan grabbed the opportunities with both hands, enrolling in courses focused on health, including mindfulness, diet and nutrition, and weightlifting, as well as ethics and leadership classes where she says she “gained a deeper understanding of myself and my motivations,” and reflected on her purpose in life. She studied China’s Belt and Road initiative, which aims to build a modern-day Silk Route by developing infrastructure across Central Asia, and took virtual yoga classes.

“The interdisciplinary curriculum at DKU has been a transformative experience for me, as it has allowed me to approach problems from multiple perspectives,” she says.

Marytha Tan (top, center) during online research project discussions

Driven by a fascination with the working of the human brain she also studied neuroscience, where one of her most memorable experiences was Dr. Leonard White’s neuroanatomy course, where she was able to examine human brains first hand.

“This experience gave me a profound appreciation for the complexity of the human brain and sparked a desire to continue exploring this field throughout my life,” she says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Tan, like many others, faced online lessons. It was a set-back, but true to her conviction that anything is possible, she set about making life interesting, despite the separation from her classmates.

Determined not to get bored, and to do something meaningful, she got to work on a series of projects, which included spearheading research on the use of spirulina to treat ovarian cancer, learning to play the violin and launching the MediHealth podcast with her classmate Reika Shimomura.

Marytha Tan (third from right) with Reika Shimomura (fourth from right) and other members of the MediHealth podcast team

Duke Kunshan’s first student-led podcast, MediHealth started in 2020 with eight team members and over time expanded to 20. Its aim was to provide a space to discuss healthcare issues and put a spotlight on research being conducted by students.

“Our efforts helped to amplify students’ voices and raise awareness about their research, providing a platform to communicate their findings to the public,” she says. 

As the podcast grew, Tan helped to expand it into new areas, launching in-person breast cancer awareness events on the Duke Kunshan campus, and engaging a professional communications trainer to help improve team members’ competence in public speaking, podcasting, and marketing.

“Despite leading a virtual team, the program helped build a sense of community among the Medihealth podcast team and polished everyone’s communication skills,” says Tan.

Tan is about to graduate from Duke Kunshan, but she plans to continue her journey of discovery by pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical and biological sciences at Scripps Research Institute in Florida, where she hopes to find an international student body like that of Duke Kunshan.

Her ultimate career goal is to become a university professor, so she can nurture the next generation of neuroscientists, she says.

“The working knowledge and positive science culture that I gained in DKU was foundational to my aspiration to empower the younger generation to do research and design personalized treatments for neurodegenerative patients,” she adds.

For those following her path to Duke Kunshan, Tan says the university works well for people who value flexibility and adaptability to change, qualities she has discovered in herself along the way.

“All uncertainties are just an opportunity for me to explore uncharted routes and surprise myself,” she says.

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