UW medical student crosses professional, personal bridges in China


In the latest chapter of the burgeoning collaboration between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Chinese PLA General Hospital in Beijing, a second-year medical student at UW–Madison has added a distinctive personal twist.

This summer, Yuan Yuan (Jackie) Gong—a Chinese native who spent most of her childhood around Baltimore—became the first UW–Madison medical student to work in PLA’s Department of Surgery, according to Dr. Bruce Harms, professor of surgery and chief of the colorectal surgery section at UW Hospital.

Jackie Gong
Jackie Gong

After reading an article on the Wisconsin China Initiative website about UW efforts to build ties with PLA General Hospital, Gong contacted Harms about getting involved with a summer project there. After all, PLA General Hospital—a 5,000-bed medical and research center formerly known as the “301 Military Hospital” (PLA stands for People’s Liberation Army)—is the best government hospital in China, according to Harms.

But Gong’s interests are more than just professional. She was born at PLA General Hospital.

With Harms’ assistance, she was able to return to PLA General Hospital to work on a summer research project supported by a Shapiro Scholarship. This also gave her an opportunity to spend time with her paternal grandparents, who still live in Beijing.

“It really has been a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for me to be staying with my grandparents, working in the hospital where I was born, and getting hands-on clinical and surgical experience,” she says.

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Gong’s interests in science and medicine come naturally. Her mother graduated from medical school in Wuhan, Hubei province, and came to Beijing to pursue post-graduate research at the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, where her father’s parents were professors in the Department of Pharmacology. It was Gong’s grandparents who brought her parents together.

Soon after Gong was born in 1987, her mother left China to enroll in the doctoral program at the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy, on a full scholarship; she wanted to study the latest research techniques and pharmaceutical developments in the United States.

“About a year later, my father left for the U.S. to join my mom,” Gong says. “He studied engineering in China, but found it difficult to find jobs with the language barrier. So he began by working entry level jobs in restaurants, going to night school, and eventually landed his job creating computer databases for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.”

Gong remained in Beijing, under the care of a nanny and her grandparents, until she was 5 years old, and then joined her parents in the United States.

“I had a pretty normal childhood growing up in Baltimore,” she recalls. “I started first grade a couple weeks after I arrived in the States and began taking an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class. My classmates were all very friendly and would help teach me English. By the end of first grade I was pretty much fluent.”

Early on, Gong began to develop an interest in science.

“My mom would take me to her lab and I watched her perform experiments,” she recalls.

For her high school graduation project at the Bryn Mawr School, an all-girls private school, she volunteered at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

She went on to major in public health studies at Johns Hopkins University as an undergraduate and then earned her master’s in health science degree from the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“I completed my master’s degree part-time while working full-time in an ophthalmology lab at the Wilmer Eye Institute,” she says.

“All throughout college and graduate school, I participated in two extracurricular activities that meant a lot to me and inspired me to pursue medicine,” she says. “I volunteered at the Baltimore Rescue Mission, a clinic for homeless men, and I taught Mandarin to children at the Baltimore Chinese School.”

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Gong says she applied to medical school “because I am passionate about patient care and because I want a degree with the flexibility to do research, teach, as well as allow me to possibly work in China.”

She has yet to decide on a specialty. Maybe ophthalmology, but her work this summer in Beijing also has her thinking about general surgery.

“My summer experience at the PLA General Hospital has turned out to be even more exciting, educational, and meaningful than I had expected,” she says. “I had expected to be in the lab the majority of the time, working on my Shapiro research project, ‘Correlation between miR-21 expression and clinical characteristics of rectal cancer.’”

Her research is a continuation of a project started in the United States by Dr. Tao Li, a PLA surgeon who spent last year in Madison as a surgical fellow in the UW–Madison Department of Surgery, working with Harms and Gong’s research mentor, Dr. Greg Kennedy.

Jackie Gong with Dr. George Wilding and Dr. Tao Li at Chinese PLA General Hospital in Beijing.
Jackie Gong with Dr. George Wilding and Dr. Tao Li at Chinese PLA General Hospital in Beijing.

“My final manuscript will combine my data—using Chinese patient tumor samples—with Dr Li’s data,” she explains. “This project is thus a true collaborative effort between UW and the PLA General Hospital and the results will be meaningful for cancer patients in both the U.S. and China.”

Gong says Li, who has been her mentor at PLA General Hospital, “arranged for me to spend most of my time in the clinic and in the operating room, assisting him with patient care and during surgeries.”

She also has actively participated in the care of patients in PLA’s General Surgery department.

“I have been welcomed as a part of the Dr. Li’s surgical team and I have scrubbed into every surgery that he has done since I arrived in June,” she says. “In total, I have scrubbed into more than 50 surgeries this summer.”

She has learned about caring for patients with gastric cancer, which is Li’s specialty. While rare in the United States, gastric cancer is common in China.

“I am lucky to have had this opportunity to come to China and work with Dr. Li,” she says.

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Since moving to the United States in 1992, Gong has returned to Beijing a few times, generally every other year, but only for a couple of weeks per visit.

“I have not had the chance to be with my grandparents for an extended period of time,” she says. “This summer, I am so grateful for the chance to be here for two and half months.”

Jackie Gong and Dr. Bruce Harms in Beijing.
Jackie Gong and Dr. Bruce Harms in Beijing.

Her grandparents, now in their 80s, have seen Beijing go through massive changes during their lifetime.

“Because my grandfather isn’t able to walk very far, they have not been able to see for themselves the extent of the transformation, especially the recent 2008 Olympics makeover,” she says. “Every evening when I get home, I tell them about new things that I’ve seen, done, eaten and show them pictures and they are just as excited and fascinated as I am!”

She adds: “Being able to spend my summer with my grandparents who raised me until I was 5 years old has truly been a blessing and I have cherished every moment of being here with them.”

Her extended stay also has allowed her to see other relatives in Beijing and Wuhan, as well as the nanny who helped take care of her. “I only saw her briefly when I came back to Beijing during middle school, so it has been about 13 years since me or my grandparents have talked with her.”

She also visited with Harms when he came to Beijing in June as part of the UW–Madison delegation, led by Interim Chancellor David Ward.

“Jackie’s story shows how one person can bridge barriers between countries and institutions and perhaps create opportunities for those who follow,” Harms says. “I can only imagine how proud her parents and grandparents must be of her accomplishments.”

— by Kerry G. Hill