Alex Tong ′11
Hometown: Dallas, TX
Major: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
There’s always time for a little more: In addition to his studies, serving as first violin and concertmaster for the Rhodes Orchestra and as a student researcher at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Alex also explores his Chinese ancestry as the co-president of the student-run group All Students Interested In Asia (A.S.I.A.)
Why did you choose Biochemistry & Molecular Biology as your major?
Originally, I was a Biology major on the pre-med track. But during my freshman year, I audited an introductory course in organic chemistry and that changed everything. I got to know the professor and ended up spending hours in her lab conducting research in organic synthesis, falling in love with chemicals in the process. As a result of that experience, I considered switching to Chemistry, but my passion for Biology still lingered in the background. In the summer after my freshman year, I became involved in the St. Jude Summer Plus Program and that’s where it all started to come together. Through my research in the Chemical Biology and Therapeutics departments, I realized that I didn’t have to choose either Biology or Chemistry – with the Biochemistry & Molecular Biology program, I could do both.
How did you first become involved with St. Jude?
I applied for the Summer Plus Program during my freshman year, and what a nerve-wracking process it was! The year I applied was the first time the program began admitting first-years, which made me all the more humbled and excited when I was selected. The kind of research that goes on at St. Jude is just tremendous, so having the opportunity to be a part of that at the undergraduate level is something that will certainly serve me well in graduate school and beyond.
Has your experience at St. Jude shaped your studies in any way?
Absolutely! Beginning last semester, I began tailoring my course selections to gain a better insight into the mechanics behind the experiments I was conducting. Thanks to St. Jude, I better understood how to perform certain experiments, but I wanted to know why a given compound or reagent reacted the way it did. I took Dr. Terry Hill’s Cell Biology course which helped me understand what, precisely, was happening in my experiments and why I got the results I did. Having that knowledge only makes me all the more excited about doing more research in the future.
Where to from here?
Right now, my plan is to pursue a M.D./Ph.D. degree. I want to interact with patients on a day-to-day basis, but I also realized through my St. Jude experience that it’s the researchers who put the tools into the hands of the doctor. If there’s no one making advancements in the field of research, then the doctors won’t be able to best treat the patients. Just as I combined my passions for Chemistry and Biology in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program, I hope to intertwine my interests in research and medicine with an M.D./Ph.D. degree.
You’re also involved with the Rhodes Orchestra. What has that experience been like?
I became involved with the Rhodes Orchestra about the same time that I signed on to St. Jude, but I’ve been playing the violin since I was about 4. At first, it started out as a way for my parents to keep me busy by channeling all my childish energy into something productive, but now it’s something that I am truly passionate about. I joined the Rhodes Orchestra to meet new people and to just have fun, but I never dreamed I would become first violin and concertmaster!
Last year, you won first place in the Gladys Cauthen Soloist Competition. What was that like?
During my sophomore year, I started working on the Bruch Violin Concerto in G minor, but I realized that in order to improve, I needed feedback from practicing professionals. The judges for the soloist competition included one of the first violinists from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, the director of Opera Memphis and one of the band directors from the University of Memphis, so I decided to sign up to hear what they had to say about my work. Going into the competition, I was mainly looking for constructive criticism; I didn’t anticipate that I would earn first place.
Science and music. That’s an interesting combination …
Actually, when it really comes down to it, a lot of the skills cultivated in music can be translated into science. When you’re working on a concerto, there’s just no way you’ll get it right the first time. It takes weeks and weeks of practice to get the piece up to par. Likewise, in science, very rarely does an experiment go according to plan the first time. It takes one, two, sometimes 10 tries to produce the desired final product or to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. But no matter, what’s most important is simply to stick with it. Dedication and perseverance – that’s what it’s all about.