Name: Andrew Lam
Major: Biochemistry, biophysics, and neurobiology through the Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences (MLS), master’s in chemistry
Hometown: Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
34th Street Magazine: Tell us about your decision to pursue the Vagelos MLS Program as well as a master’s in chemistry.
I decided to give [MLS] a shot my [first] year. In the program, one has to take different science classes across all the different disciplines, like biology, chemistry, and physics. I think a good theme for the program is that all the sciences are connected. So you'll notice that through my majors—I have three majors, but there's so much overlap. All the classes I take capture all the different majors because science is interrelated … and that's why I stuck through it, because I really wanted to have a deeper understanding of biology and medicine.
My decision to pursue the master’s was that I always knew I wanted to do research. I'm doing research at Penn—it’s a big part of the Vagelos program. I've spent a lot of time in the lab, really late at night—I'm a really big night owl—so research is a big part of my life here.
I study neurodegenerative diseases, and I always knew I wanted to do research on neurodegeneration. That's what got me interested in neuroscience, because my grandfather had Parkinson's disease when I was a child. Growing up, watching him suffer [through the] disease—not being able to walk or feed himself and not remembering who I was—[it] really had a big impact on me. That's what made me realize that I want to study neuroscience and do research here. The Vagelos program actually helped me accomplish all those things and more.
You're involved in Alzheimer's Buddies. What does that entail, and what does it mean to you?
Growing up, I watched my grandfather have Parkinson's disease, and that had a big impact in my life. I've been part of Alzheimer’s Buddies since [my first] year. I would visit my buddy in this nursing home nearby, like all the other volunteers do, and we would do activities with them to try to get their mind off things and alleviate the social and cognitive parts of the disease.
I had a really close relationship with my buddy. His name was Jim. It was really challenging at first trying to relate to someone very different from you and also someone experiencing dementia. For Jim, I found out that he really loved old movies. That's what would get him talking. So I sort of latched on to that. I took a class at Penn called CIMS 101, which focuses on movies made from the beginning of cinematic history until 1945. I would go to this class, and I would watch these movies, and then I would have material to go talk to my buddy about. His eyes would light up when I mentioned a movie, and he would tell me all about it.
Unfortunately, he passed away, which I was really sad to hear about. But what really heartened me was that I found out that he left me a copy of this VCR tape from his favorite director that he really loved and that we talked about. I still have it with me in my apartment.
I had a really positive experience with the club, and I saw what good it could do. That motivated me to want to be more involved, so now I'm the co–director. It's really weird because I became co–director at the start of COVID–19, and we couldn't visit the nursing home. But we could still video chat with residents of the nursing home during this time. So a big part of this year was trying to get these calls set up and running, and trying to continue the mission of the club even through COVID–19. Thanks to a really great board, we were able to do that.
You're also the chief of MERT. How was your experience being chief during the pandemic?
It's definitely been a challenge. Last spring break, for the first time in MERT’s history, we had to go out of service when classes were happening because of the pandemic. Over the summer, we knew we really wanted to work to get back into serving the community. So a lot of the work was done to figure out a set of protocols that would help us be safe—protecting our EMTs [emergency medical technicians] as well as protecting the patients we serve.
It took a lot of work, developing that set of protocols. I did a lot of research on CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] protocols, Department of Health protocols, and guidelines from the Pennsylvania Department of Health. I took all that information, and I wrote a bullet point list of a bunch of protocols that we knew we wanted to do. MERT is very lucky to have a lot of advisors at Penn who are very invested and put a lot of work into keeping it running. A major one is our medical director, Dr. Josh Glick, so we consulted him on all the protocols. He helped us develop them and flesh them out. The whole MERT board got it approved and fully written, and we decided to operate on those.
It's been a really big success so far. We haven't had any cases of [COVID–19] transmission within MERT EMTs or between patients. We're really lucky that the University approved us to come back to service and allow us to operate during the pandemic, even though we're all still students.
What has been your most memorable Penn experience?
Coming into Penn, I never really expected to be involved in community health and public health. What changed that was actually interacting with the Philadelphia community a lot. It sounds really weird, but my [first] year, I saw the Eagles win the Super Bowl, and I remember going down to Broad Street and seeing all of Philadelphia there. I got to learn a lot about the city. It's so weird that that was an experience that sort of drove me to that—that got me interested in the Philadelphia community.
My sophomore year, I had a chance to apply to the MERT board, and I applied to be the community outreach officer. In addition to learning more about the city, I learned a lot about the health disparities in the city and how the opioid crisis is affecting Philadelphia. The main goal of the community outreach position is to provide trainings for the Penn community. But when I joined the position, I knew I wanted to expand these trainings to the Philadelphia community. The major project that I took up was an opioid overdose and reversal training project.
Basically, opioid overdoses cause a significant amount of deaths in America and in Philadelphia. And these opiate overdoses are easily reversible through Narcan, which is a medication. As EMTs on MERT, we were trained to give Narcan. In my time, I've been to a lot of opiate overdose calls, and I've met a lot of people in Philadelphia who have had friends and family overdose on opioids. Hearing all these stories had a really big effect on me. This inspired [MERT] to develop an opioid overdose training program, training people how to detect an opioid overdose and how to respond to it.
A big part of my time in that job was securing a grant from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. So we got this grant, and we were able to distribute Narcan for free at our trainings. We’ve trained over a hundred people by now and given free doses of Narcan to make sure there's some options to handle the opioid crisis in Philadelphia. I was really proud of all this. I never, ever expected to do all this when I first came to Penn, and that whole experience got me interested in public health, community, and community health. I know that's something I want to do in my future when I'm a physician—being able to continue to do public health stuff.
What’s next for you after Penn?
I'm going to medical school. I don't know where yet, but hopefully I’ll become a doctor one day. I don't know what specialty I want to go into yet. But I know there are a couple things I want to continue doing in medical school and beyond. Being in Vagelos and working in my lab confirmed that I really love to do research. So I want to continue to research as a physician, and I also want to be really involved in the community and public health.
Last song you listened to?
“Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.
If you were a building on campus, which one would you be and why?
I would probably say the chemistry building. There's always something there for whatever mood I'm feeling.
What’s your hair routine?
I like to keep it natural. So what I do to make it stay up is, at night, I wet my hair, and I comb it, and then I just go to sleep on my back. It just stays up throughout the whole day. I don't know anybody else who does that, but it keeps it nice and soft without the gel from hair products.
There are two types of people at Penn …
Those that sign their email with "Best," and those that don't.
And which one are you?
I don't. My proudest accomplishment is that I've gone all four years without signing one single email with "Best."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.