He wrote his college essay on Pokémon.
Phillip Ang of Weymouth, Massachusetts did not expect to be accepted to Harvard University. After being deferred, his hope for attending the Ivy League school withered.
“I applied as a joke,” Ang said with a laugh. “I didn’t think I had a chance in the world, but my mom made me do it.”
He received his acceptance e-mail on his way to an orchestra concert. Focused on playing his trumpet, Ang did not fully process the news until he was on his way home.
“I screamed out the car window and was really happy,” Ang said. “Grinding through high school and losing my father… I felt like I was overcoming a lot… It felt great… It was the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
Ang, now a senior at Harvard, is finishing up his degree in molecular and cellular biology with hopes of attending medical school and researching on the side.
Ang worked on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) research at the Engle Laboratory at Boston Children’s Hospital and developed a passion for research and helping children. To assist with expenses, Ang applied for and received the Harvard University Herchel Smith Undergraduate Research Fellowship.
“I really like the idea of making kids smile,” Ang said. “Protecting kids is very important. (I think I want) to go into pediatrics.”
In addition to research, Ang also volunteered with kids on weekends and learned about caring for patients from his mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Engle. Ang received books on medicine and discussed challenges of the field with Dr. Engle during his two-year stint at the Engle Laboratory.
“(Dr. Engle) is very kind,” Ang said. “(She) takes care of people the best she can. Learning about the way she looks at people and medicine was very good for me.”
Ang explained that he worked in the lab the summer before his sophomore year at Harvard through the summer before his senior year, taking off a short amount of time to study abroad. Much of Ang’s research consisted of studying ocular motor neurons in mice embryos to help better understand the neurons in human eyes—a part of the body resistant to ALS.
“It’s a good intellectual challenge,” Ang said. “You realize you’re looking at something that’s alive. You (gain) a deep appreciation for life.”
From his research, Ang gained exposure to some of the serious health problems ravaging American society. He explained that the research demanded depth because he was researching how life worked, which affected not only him but all people.
After meeting an ALS patient in his freshman biology class, Ang said he was energized and empathetic. Moved by this experience, he researched ALS for a project before applying to work in the Engle Lab.
“I realize through hard work and my love of medicine and science… (That this research) contributes to you as a human being,” Ang said. “This is why I not only want to be a physician but also a researcher to help mediate the problems.”
In addition to working in the Engle Laboratory, Ang also participated in the NIH STEP-UP internship program in 2016. The fellowship is one of the best he has done because of the collaborative, friendly environment full of passionate student scientists and life-learners.
“I think I learned a lot from the other students the most,” And said. “(They) had very deep stories of how they overcame a lot through science and biology.”
Ang appreciated the variety of lifestyles represented at STEP-UP. Though he has found great friends at Harvard, he easily connected with students at STEP-UP who had similar backgrounds and empathized with their difficulties.
During his time at Harvard, Ang said he has met a lot of beautiful people, both on campus and through extra-curricular activities. As a graduating senior, he looks back on his academic career fondly, but looks forward to his graduate career expectantly.
“Have confidence, don’t freak out too much and don’t care about what anyone else thinks,” Ang said when reminiscing on lessons learned. “If you’re happy with how you feel in the work you’re doing, that’s all that really matters. The idea of loving yourself and taking care of yourself is really important for life.”
Correction: Ang was awarded the Herchel Smith Undergraduate Research Fellowship, not the Herchel Smith Fellowship for Science. Edits have been made.