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Interview with Zandy Wong (Humans of Neuroscience)

Zandy Wong

Jessica Paul: Hi, my name is Jessica Paul and today we are interviewing Zandy Wong. If you want to introduce yourself go ahead.

Zandy Wong: Ok. Hi, I’m Zandy Wong. I am a student at Johns Hopkins where I study neuroscience and I love neuroscience because it’s so interdisciplinary, and seeing how the body works. And the brain of course!

Jessica Paul: Can you tell me a little bit about your background in neuroscience research?

Image of Zandy Wong presenting her research over Zoom

Zandy Wong: I really didn’t start neuroscience research until this summer. Most of my research has been computer-science based but I got into neuroscience because I wanted to see the neuroscience behind hearing loss and how that affects. And my current research this summer focused on investigating place cell, hippocampal place cell, plasticity experience — especially hippocampal place cell experiences plasticity. So some background if you don’t know what hippocampal place cells are, they are these place cells that, they are cells in the hippocampus that fire at a specific location. They are kind of like a marker, so sometimes these cells, they’re punctuated by their firing grades and sometimes these firing grades shift backwards so that these firing grades come sooner and sooner and closer together. So it’s sometimes an indication that experiences of plasticity that the brain is able to make more connections to transmit more information at a time is working. And we see this in a shift because since the firing grades move backwards, it’s evidence that post-synaptic connections are being closer together an example is experiences and plasticity. That’s just my research this summer. So yeah, I got involved this summer at Johns Hopkins. It’s all really exciting.

Jessica Paul: That’s super awesome! I would be really excited to be able to do that kind of research. What originally drew you to your interest in pursuing neuroscience?

Zandy Wong: I originally got into neuroscience because I was looking, I didn’t really intend to do neuroscience in college, but I was looking for a major that had to do with hearing loss and most often the common major is communications science and disorders. But neuroscience was able to focus on all the interdisciplinary parts that I wanted to and really the brain and the ear work so much together, to form hearing, and that’s why I decided to go into neuroscience.

Zandy and her friend taking a break while completing an experiment!

Jessica Paul: What obstacles did you face in the path to getting you where you are as a college neuroscience major?

Zandy Wong: Well, I might have mentioned before but I am a hard-hearing student. I had always been kind of on the fray. People doubted me because they couldn’t understand me because my speech wasn’t the greatest at the time. So when people told me that they couldn’t understand me, I just worked harder to improve my speech to get to that point. Then, I guess people don’t realize what the challenge is that a person with a disability faces versus non-disabilities. I have had people tell me that yes, it is greatest that there are opportunities reserved for people like me for people who are underrepresented in STEM but those opportunities should also be reserved for people that don’t have disabilities, who don’t fit in those categories and that was only recently. It was really hard to hear that because I thought that people had changed at that point and then also, like, I faced isolation. They didn’t take the time to listen and it would have been great if they would take time to listen so that was a little tough to work through. But you know, I came out of it a stronger person so I am really proud of that.

Jessica Paul: Cool, what part of the brain still fascinates you whether that be a certain area or a kind of like function that carries out?

Zandy Wong: The hippocampus is really fascinating to me because that’s what most of my work is focused on this summer, but I hope to keep working on it in the fall. It is really fascinating because it controls so much memory. There is a famous study from 30 years ago that they had to remove this guy’s hippocampus because he was having these really bad seizures. When they removed his hippocampus, he lost all his recollection like he had his old memories but he couldn’t create any new memories without his hippocampus. So it was really interesting to see how we could quantify memory as less abstract and more concrete so we can figure out what exactly goes on in the brain.

Jessica Paul: I think I heard about that study when I was taking a neuroscience course and I found that, also, like super interesting how that affected his memory. So onto our next topic, how do you feel about your current face in neuroscience and the contributions that can be made by students?

Zandy Wong: I feel really excited, I have actually never taken a neuroscience class but I am really excited to do that at Johns Hopkins. I feel like there’s so much more that we can explore, I am not sure what specifically, but the brain is still like there’s so much unknown that we don’t know about it. So I am really excited to keep exploring at Johns Hopkins.

Jessica Paul: Interpret this how you want to but what does the field of neuroscience, in your opinion, need more of?

Zandy Wong: It definitely needs more diversity. Not just like raising people up, but showing people that their ideas matter, that they can do it if they want to and that everyone brings something to the table and they should be proud of it. So I am excited to keep working to help increase and spread awareness for underrepresented minorities and students with disabilities in the field of neuroscience because it is a really exciting field.

Jessica Paul: Yeah, I think definitely, even if you have minorities working in your field, it is important to support them and show them that they deserve to be there due to their work and talents because it could be a really hard feeling. (Refering to imposter syndrome.)

Zandy Wong: Yeah definitely

Jessica Paul: So, what do you think the biggest misconception made about you or neuroscience is?

Zandy Wong: Misconceptions, let’s see. I should have thought about this. The biggest misconception people have about neuroscience is that it’s too hard for them. It does have a bit of a learning curve and there are a lot of nuances with it, but if you put in the time and effort you will be able to learn something and be proud of what you are speaking about and that is something really exciting to smile about.

Jessica Paul: Yeah, I think it’s definitely super time consuming, but you really do end up getting so much out of it and learning a ton of new things! How did you get yourself ready for a challenging career or a challenging major while you were still in high school?

Zandy Wong: So I still have no idea really what I want to do with my life, I am pre-med right now and I wasn’t really intending to do neuroscience. I actually applied as a data science / computer science major but I think the key to me figuring out that I want to do a STEM career is investing in yourself and being curious. First, investing in yourself is taking the time to choose activities that really suit what you want to do and you don’t have to create something new, you just have to make something better. Like there’s all these organizations out there, that are amazing, but you don’t have to try to replicate it. You can try to go in there and see what you can do and make it better. And I think being curious is a big part. I — history is my favourite subject actually. So I love looking at history and seeing how interdisciplinary it is. But it’s just seeing the connections between subjects is really important for getting ready for a STEM career. Because we aren’t just doing research to be curious, we are doing it because it helps someone and that is something really to smile about. And then, what was the last thing? I think the last thing that really helped me along this path was building relationships with people. They talk about networking and connections and I really do believe it matters. Some of the amazing people I have met, and the amazing mentors I’ve had were all because I reached out and talked to someone and asked how they were doing. It’s really important because people still do really matter to propel you on the path, and help you find opportunities that advance you to your next goal in STEM.

Jessica Paul: Well, I think that’s really helpful advice. And, the last question, you kind of covered this in the question I just asked you — but what is one piece of advice you would give to students who are considering neuroscience?

Zandy Wong at her high school graduation

Zandy Wong: I would consider, I would tell students not to jump into it just because it sounds cool which is something I talked to people about. And it does sound really cool and it is fascinating but you should do it because it is interesting to you and it should be exciting to you.

Jessica Paul: Yeah, I think that definitely makes a ton of sense because if you’re not actually devoted to it, and like you said before this research is helping people, so if that’s not really where your heart is then you have to figure out what your priorities are. So those are all of the questions that I have for you today. If you have anything else, feel free to add. But yeah, thank you for talking with me!

Zandy Wong: Yeah, I think I just want to close with this. Like, I never expected to get this far to where I am in neuroscience. I never expected to be a part of Johns Hopkins and the research community there. If I can do it, then I think other students can because all it takes is believing in yourself and believing that you can be the change in the world that you want to see because — everyone is worth something like they all have a worth. So it’s really important to be proud of it and put yourself out there and hopefully contribute to the world of STEM or whatever field you choose to go into.

Jessica Paul: That’s awesome, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Zandy Wong: Thank you so much Jessica!


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