Modest, yet confident, Matthew Chaung can light up a room with his enthusiasm. This spring, Chaung, named MCB’s Outstanding Senior for 2018, has more reason than ever to have a spring in his step. In addition to receiving MCB’s departmental award, Chaung has been honored with a College of Science Galileo Circle Scholarship and named a UA Pillar of Excellence for his extraordinary academic excellence.
“I could not think of a more humble, compassionate, grateful and deserving student than Matthew,” cheers his mentor, Dr. Daniela Zarnescu, who sees in him “an incredible level of grit and maturity.”
Chaung entered college wanting to become a researcher. He immediately started looking for a lab to join, and “[Zarnescu] took a chance on me” Chaung smiles, recalling his approach to her as a freshman. “That’s what changed everything for me.”
With the help of mentors (including Zarnescu, former staff scientist Dr. Robert Kraft, and Dr. Carol Dieckmann), courses like Cell and Developmental Biology (MCB 305), his MCB “big family” and Zarnescu lab “little family,” and a lot of hard work in the lab, Chaung found his path forward.
Crediting research as “one of the most transformative experiences” for him in college, Chaung found his passion for medicine through his lab and personal experiences.
“Research is about helping people in the future,” he explains. “I realized I wanted to help people now.”
Chaung’s parents moved to the United States from Thailand more than 20 years ago, and he recalls the difference their family doctor made in his parents’ lives.
“Our family doctor really helped transform my parents’ health—my parents are so healthy now, they don’t even need to go to the doctor!” Chaung exclaims, quickly adding “of course, they still do see the doctor.”
Seeing the results of the physician’s ability to interact positively with his patients and make them feel welcome inspired Chaung.
“I thought I would want to be a specialist,” he recalls of his initial interest in medicine, “but I realized I wanted to be on the so-called front lines of health care.”
For Chaung, that means keeping people healthy, and tackling health problems before they progress to the point of requiring specialized intervention. Volunteering at a hospice helped crystallize Chaung’s interest in medicine.
“I always thought ‘at what point could we have helped them sooner,’” Chaung laments.
Recalling one former patient, Chaung was struck that the dying man was more focused on the health of his plants than his own treatment.
“When I took care of his plants, I noticed he felt better as well,” Chaung explains. “What I realized in that moment is that medicine is more than a pill or a treatment—it can be just being there. I want to take care of each patient’s garden and nurture each patient’s individual interests as part of their care.”
Understanding how to communicate with patients is key to Chaung’s model for success. He highlights how “rephrasing” health advice “so that people can see themselves doing it,” or understanding the vulnerabilities that come with being an immigrant, and providing care sensitive to those issues, helps improve outcomes.
Chaung, who is passionate about communicating science and medicine, has a minor in Spanish, “I think it’s powerful when a physician can communicate in Spanish—it helps the patient feel like their culture is valued.”
With plans to attend UA Medical School in the fall and practice medicine in Arizona, the Phoenix native should have plenty of opportunity to put his Spanish to use.
“I joke with people I can’t live anywhere else—I’m a fan of the heat,” Chaung laughs. “Tucson has a really nice hometown feel, and I value the mix of cultures. You get the best of both worlds because we are so close to the border.”
Chaung’s recent accolades are a result of four years of hard work in the lab and in class, thinking deeply about how to use the skills he has acquired to benefit the community he cares about while majoring in MCB with honors and minoring in Biochemistry as well as Spanish.
“MCB is the reason that I got to where I am today,” Chaung offers. “It has taught me to think critically. I was interested in learning more about the cell, the most basic unit of life, and when I met [Senior Academic Advisor] Marisa [Lester] and the [MCB] students, I knew I was where I was meant to be.”
For those starting down their undergraduate path, Chaung emphasizes the benefits of simple steps like going out of your comfort zone by attending a professor’s office hours or sending an email to pursue opportunities you are passionate about.
“Reach out. If you really find you’re passionate about something, after class go up and ask the professor how to get involved in their research,” he encourages. “The faculty are really welcoming— I think that’s what makes UA so amazing. Sometimes, if you just show an interest, that faculty member may see something in you that you may not see in yourself yet.”
It’s hard to miss what’s special about Chaung. Arizonans will be lucky to have him practicing his thoughtful approach to medicine here soon. Sign up for the new patient wait list here.