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'I want to have an impact': U of T grad Zihan Gao one step closer to career as a clinician-scientist

(Photo courtesy of Zihan Gao)

Zihan Gao had just turned 13 when her mother – who had lost her own mother at that age – asked her a startling question: “What would you do if I passed away today?”

Gao became upset at the thought and was unable to answer. But the query got Gao thinking, for the first time, about the possibility of a career in medicine.

In retrospect, she considers the question a gift.

“I knew I wanted to do everything I could to keep my family with me,” says Gao, 19, who graduates from the University of Toronto this week with a bachelor’s degree in science.

“The more I dove into the subject, the more interested I became.”

With her undergraduate degree in hand, Gao is now one step closer to her goal of becoming a clinician-scientist. She credits the pandemic with enabling her to complete her degree ahead of schedule – in just over three years. With little else to do in the summer months due to public health restrictions, she signed up for as many courses as she could.

“I wanted to maximize the use of my time,” says Gao, who is U of T’s youngest graduate this fall.

While applying to medical school is on the horizon, Gao has decided, with the time she has saved, to first enrol in the university’s master of health science in translational research program. She says she was inspired to pursue experimental science after participating in U of T’s Research Opportunities Program, which, in her third year, placed her on a project led by Hance Clarke, an associate professor in anesthesiology and pain medicine in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

As part of the program, Gao wrote an original research proposal, analyzed data and delivered a final report about the effect of anxiety on perceived pain in a particular patient population – all with guidance from Clarke. She says the experience demonstrated to her the immense value of clinical science: “It changes people’s lives.”

Gao will undertake her own year-long research project as part of her master’s degree. Right now, she’s interested in health-care systems and surgery, but she admits this could change as she learns more.

“I’m open to a lot of different areas,” she says.

Gao adds that one of the reasons she chose U of T was its vast range of academic opportunities and her assumption – which turned out to be true – that she would be able to explore almost any idea.

“In high school, I felt there was a very visible norm that people followed,” she says. “At U of T, I got to make my own choices. That was something I really liked about being here.”

While in high school, she had also read about the university’s partnership with the University Health Network and figured U of T would be a great place to learn about medicine. “This platform – the network and the connections – was a huge attraction for me.”

She plans to apply to medical school, including the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, next year.

In the meantime, a recent memory keeps Gao motivated: During the pandemic, she trained to become a hospice volunteer – to support people as they face their own mortality, and to bring comfort to their loved ones. She also witnessed the power of research to develop vaccines and save lives. As a clinician-scientist, she hopes to be able to improve outcomes not just for individuals but, through science, for an entire population.

“I want to have an impact at both levels,” she says.