Writings on the people, programs and philosophies behind BSS.

Alumnae

Hillary CHAN ’11 is on a mission: to bridge the valley of death

In U of T’s Translational Research Program where Hillary is doing her professional Masters, “the valley of death” is the chasm between medical discoveries in a lab and the living, breathing patients dependent on those epiphanies to improve their day-to-day realities. There are numerous steps from medical research to practical application: acquiring funding, replicating studies, obtaining patents, marketing ideas effectively — and this time-consuming process can result in prolonged patient suffering. U of T identified this as a significant problem and, in 2015, Hillary joined its inaugural Translational Research class. At 22, she’s the youngest student.

“The field aims to revamp how we do medical research — to be oriented around patient needs rather than basing research on the researcher’s personal interests and then trying to find a patient need to match that research to,” she explains.

Hillary at the Get Your Bot On competition where her and her team won the Best Human Interaction Award at Robotics Hackathon, an annual event focused on transforming ideas into physical prototypes. Photography: Josh Wahler

Hillary at the Get Your Bot On competition where she and her team won the Best Human Interaction Award at Robotics Hackathon, an annual event focused on transforming ideas into physical prototypes. Photography: Josh Wahler

Translational Research is a new field, and it’s a confluence of many different disciplines. Some graduates may head to medical school, while others may gravitate to health policy or law. Others might work directly with patient associations, foundations for specific diseases, or take these newly acquired skill back into the clinic. Hillary is keeping an open mind about the particular problems she’d like to tackle after she graduates. At the moment, she’s particularly inspired by patient empowerment and efficient use of the innovations: ensuring medical products like pacemakers are implemented properly, and helping create that transparency.

It was at BSS where Hillary first learned to think holistically and merge science and humanities, rather than separate them.

“We got to do so many different things, but with a great amount of depth,” she says. “Even though I’m a scientist, I think like a humanitarian. The humanitarian side drives and influences my clinical pursuits. For me it’s more meaningful to help people as opposed to just science as a field.”

That kind of integrated thinking is evident in the undergraduate degree Hillary designed for herself at U of T — she majored in Health and Disease, minoring in Writing Rhetoric and Contemporary Asian Studies. From there, Translational Research was a natural and obvious fit.

One challenge of working in an emerging field is that the path forward is truly her own. With few examples to follow, Hillary relies on her courage of conviction — another trait that was fostered at BSS.

“BSS trained me to take risks and have confidence in what I believe,” she says. “Right now, from my clinical and research experiences, translational research is where the medical field is bounded for— so I’m taking that risk by going into a field that is still at its genesis.”

“BSS trains us to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she adds. “A hundred plus years ago, if you spoke about genetics, people would think you were taking a huge risk to be in a field that may fail. But that’s part of succeeding sometimes— to go with your instinct, and arrive before everyone else.”

Motivated by the desire to give back to the school, Hillary recently got involved with the Moral Courage Project. She’s working with a group of Grade 12 day students and boarders to help them forge stronger bonds. Hillary draws on her skills from her Masters program to advise the group on how to collect data from both sets of girls. This way, they can better understand why the gap exists and how to address it.

“It’s been really rewarding to see the girls take charge and learn,” she says. “It reminds me of my days at BSS. These girls always felt really enthusiastic about finding ways to improve and to create real change in the world.”

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By Sophie Kohn