Valerie Chen is no stranger to new experiences. She craves them and seeks them out. And, through these experiences she uses the insights gained to form her own perspective on the value of empathy. From sports and music to family and education, Valerie has made sure to learn lessons from everyone who surrounds her and she now wholeheartedly applies them to her medical education.

Born to Taiwanese immigrant parents in Rochester, New York, Valerie observed from a young age that her parents’ expectations of healthcare delivery differed from the care they received from western doctors. While observed through young eyes, Valerie internalized the implications of physicians making cultural assumptions in patient care. Now, as she pursues a future as a physician-innovator, her astute insights into the human experience will have an invaluable impact on the patients in her future care.

Pulling Key Life Lessons from a Variety of Experiences

Valerie’s ability to empathize across cultures grew during the summer before she left for college while she taught English in the Matsu Islands, a small archipelago off the coast of Taiwan. Coming from suburban New York, she took part in a fulfilling experience where community resilience, social support, and camaraderie were at the heart of her day-to-day. Short on time and resources, Valerie channeled her ability to empathize across cultures and find ways to effectively expand her students’ English vocabulary.

Valerie with a couple of her students during her summer teaching in the Matsu Islands.

Valerie also gained valuable life lessons through music, where she is an accomplished bassoonist, performing in various state and national ensembles throughout high school and college.

“It’s where I learned that dedication matters a lot more than talent. There were other kids that had a lot more innate talent than I did, but if you didn’t practice, it didn’t really matter,” said Valerie.

Music became one of her most satisfying endeavors, and consequently, it was playing bassoon which piqued her interest in engineering. With a double-reeded instrument, dedicated bassoonists make their own reeds in order to achieve the sound they desire.

“You have to take a bamboo-like cane, and through a very complicated process, you fold it, shape it, cut it, bind it, then repeatedly whittle it down until it can make the type of sound you want,” Valerie explained.

This process can take weeks, and even months to create, and it requires experimenting with various tools and multiple techniques to create the sound that the artist seeks to create. It was her first introduction into engineering, and she found fulfillment in developing a tool that would benefit others.

Throughout elementary school and high school, Valerie had a particular interest in biology. Influenced by her father’s career as an engineer, Valerie’s mutual interest in engineering soon emerged as she realized its potential to equip her with tools to solve problems which directly impacted people. With both influences clearly at play, Valerie earned her Bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering from Stanford University in 2017.

The impact of empathy on healthcare delivery

While at Stanford, Valerie found a new hobby—playing rugby. She joined the Stanford women’s rugby team, which placed second at nationals—a hard-fought, team effort built through a consistent motto from her coach. He stressed the concept of “looking for work,” which encouraged Valerie and her teammates to search for ways to escalate their efforts.

“It was probably the best teamwork lesson I’ve ever had,” Valerie recalls. “You work hard, go for the tackle, and put yourself on the line so your teammate doesn’t have to. Now, it’s something I think about whenever I work in a team,” she said.

Valerie on the field as a member of the Stanford women's rugby team.

While Valerie learned this concept through a physically challenging sport, it now translates to her day-to-day. In medical school, she seeks to apply this lesson during her problem-based learning sessions, where she learns a majority of the concepts that will serve her as a future physician-innovator.

For her senior project at Stanford, Valerie created a device that reduced the pain associated with intra-uterine device insertions. In solving this problem, she observed a divide between key stake holders–the physician, the engineer and the patient. This project served as an opportunity for Valerie to exercise her strengths: she was able to seamlessly identify with multiple perspectives, and therefore bring parties together to find a solution. It pulled on her experiences growing up, remembering the impact of cultural assumptions on a patient.

“You’re not just solving a science problem. It’s a lot more nuanced and complicated than that. And I think that’s what makes it so exciting,” said Valerie.

“You’re not just solving a science problem. It’s a lot more nuanced and complicated than that. And I think that’s what makes it so exciting.”

Moving Forward

True to her skills in observing nuances and empathizing with others, Valerie is passionate about healthcare policy, specifically medical device regulation. She feels it’s an opportunity that would allow her to wear a lot of hats. Today as she studies at Carle Illinois, she finds her engineering-based training vital to her future career endeavors, and she finds that time in the clinic helps her to stay grounded in why she’s working toward her medical degree. Valerie is motivated by being a source of comfort, reassurance and security when patients are going through hard times, and not only caring for their physical needs, but providing emotional support as well.

It’s Valerie’s goal to continue cultivating empathy throughout her career–to keep this theme at the forefront of her decision-making, and to keep remembering that each patient is a person.

“The whole motivation of medicine is the personal connection,” says Valerie. “It’s one of my personal goals to maintain empathy, even when it’s hard or draining.”

Given her track record, Valerie will certainly learn new lessons from the variety of experiences she will soon encounter. And, she will no doubt apply those lessons for the good of others with each opportunity.

“The whole motivation of medicine is the personal connection. It’s one of my personal goals to maintain empathy, even when it’s hard or draining.”

The generosity of people like you made it possible for Valerie and her classmates to attend Carle Illinois with scholarships.