Student Spotlight: Aaron Chiou

Aaron Chiou, Biomedical Engineering

What is your area of research?

I’m studying the process of bone metastasis, or the spread of cancer to bone. My research focuses on understanding how breast cancer affects bone structure and composition prior to metastasis, and whether these changes make it easier for cancer cells to form secondary tumors in the bone. 

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

In my early teens, two of my grandparents were diagnosed with cancer and died within a year of each other. They were a big part of my childhood, and I felt like they were gone too soon. Since then, I’ve been driven to apply my skills toward improving human health. Biomedical engineering (BME) happens to fall at the intersection of my natural curiosity about how things work and my motivation to benefit patients. I’ve chosen to study cancer because it’s terrible yet scientifically intriguing. I want my efforts to help extend lives, and we need to understand the complexities of how cancer works before we can effectively prevent it from growing and spreading. 

Why is this research important?

Most people know someone who has been affected by cancer. In most cases, cancer isn’t fatal until it has spread, so we need to figure out how to control that process. Bone metastasis occurs in many common cancers, but we still need better therapeutic options to treat and prevent it. That’s why uncovering the mechanisms by which metastasis develops is essential, so that we can specifically target those processes with clinical intervention. 

How do you integrate research into your teaching or vice versa?

I used to view research and teaching as distinct, but now I see that they can overlap greatly. Teaching and learning can occur outside the classroom, such as in the lab. Mentoring undergraduates brings teaching into the world of research during a critical time in their scientific journeys. Bringing research into the classroom is a newer concept to me, but it makes a lot of sense to me as a scientist. As educators, we should strive to use effective methods to teach students. How do we determine what those methods are? Teaching as research (TAR) is about developing evidence-based instructional practices to improve learning. This semester I’ve been working on a TAR project to determine how effective it is to teach physiology to undergraduate BME students by focusing on disease applications rather than covering every detail of the organ systems.

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was lucky to be encouraged to explore science from an early age. I always found wonder in the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) through summer programs in my youth and a biotechnology program in high school. As an undergraduate at Brown University, I worked in a BME lab researching stem cell mechanics during differentiation, which further affirmed my interest in pursuing biomedical research, and motivated me to apply to graduate programs in BME. At Cornell, I’ve been looking for opportunities to inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of Cornell Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES), I have helped organize and run outreach programs for local K-12 students that aim to get them excited about STEM in their youth.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

The graduate students and professors that mentored me at Brown had a big influence on the way I view research. They, along with my mentors here at Cornell, have encouraged me to persevere even when things don’t seem to be going well in lab. The memory of my grandparents and being involved in the Community Engagement by Cancer Scientists program through Engaged Cornell also put my research into perspective, motivate me to work with integrity, and remind me that I am part of a battle much larger than my day-to-day struggles in the lab. 

I understand you've been involved in some of CU-CIRTL's future faculty programming. Can you please elaborate on your participation in these programs?

As a Graduate Assistance in Areas of Nation Need (GAANN) Fellow in BME, I am involved in training meant to develop my teaching skills, which includes coursework sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence and CU-CIRTL. I’ve taken ALS 6015 (The Practice of Teaching in Higher Education), which helped me reflect on my own learning experiences and use them to shape my values and goals as an educator, and I’m now taking ALS 6016 (Teaching as Research in Higher Education), which is helping me become familiar with the process of TAR by conducting my own study. This semester I also chose to take ALS 6014 (Theater Techniques for Enhancing Teaching and Public Speaking), which has helped me feel more comfortable teaching in the classroom and presenting my research to diverse audiences. I took valuable skills and perspectives from these classes that made a considerable impact when I was developing and teaching a module for an undergraduate BME course as a GAANN Fellow.

What are the benefits of participating in teaching professional development programs like these while in graduate school?

I think being involved in this programming during grad school will make me more prepared for an academic position. To already have had experience teaching and thinking about ways to improve higher education means that I’ll be able to make informed decisions about how to design and implement a course in the future so that my students have learning experience that I can provide. I think graduate student participation in programs like these help us to start adopting this sort of mindset early on, and make us more aware of the teaching resources that are available to us as we progress in our careers.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

Not only is all the research in BME exciting, the atmosphere in the department is very welcoming and supportive. I think Cornell BME truly embodies the collaborative and interdisciplinary spirit that we pride ourselves on. The faculty are brilliant and approachable, and the students are always willing to help, so it’s no wonder that BME labs have numerous collaborations within and beyond Ithaca.

What’s next for you?

I’m preparing for my A exam, so that’s my most immediate focus right now. As for what’s after grad school, I’m not entirely sure. I’m leaning toward an academic career, but I’m going to keep an open mind and continue to explore potential career paths over the next few years while I’m finishing up my dissertation research.

Any advice for incoming graduate students?

Make sure to explore Ithaca and Cornell! Facing challenges during grad school is inevitable, and spending time away from your work will help keep your mind and body refreshed. Learn to know yourself and your limits, but don’t be afraid to push them. 

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School