Kristen Ong, Undergraduate Senior

Kristen Ong

Hometown: Massapequa, NY
BME Degree Program: B.S. in BME, with concentration in molecular/cellular/systems engineering (MCSE)
Lab affiliation: Dr. Christiane Linster (Computational Physiology Lab)
Awards/honors: Dean’s List, 1st Place Recipient at Weill Cornell AI Health Hackathon (2020), Student Business of the Year, Cornell eLab Entrepreneurship Kickoff (1st Place) 

Why BME?
Our generation was born in an era of “infinite-browsing”; much like we are given an almost infinite number of movie options on Netflix, we are besieged with infinite career choices. But the paradox lies in that, while all these options exist, we lack the experience and understanding to know which one resonates with us best. Going into college, I was vaguely aware of my interests in both engineering and medicine but was torn between the seemingly mutually exclusive fields. I ultimately selected BME as the bridge that quite nicely linked the two together and offered the best of both worlds. However, during these past four years at Cornell, I’ve come to realize that BME is so much more than just a conglomerate of each of its individual components; rather, it is a field that takes in a more complex application of engineering and non-engineering disciplines on the ever-changing and unpredictable human body, and interweaves them all seamlessly into one complex, but nevertheless critical, interface. This complexity that lies in the many problems biomedical engineers are forced to address is what intrigues me every day and keeps me so interested in what lies ahead in the future of BME.

Kristen Ong (center) with her CUBMD team (pre-COVID)
Kristen Ong (center) with the CUBMD team (pre-COVID).

How did you decide on your BME concentration, molecular/cellular/systems engineering (MCSE)?
Following the completion of my computational neuroscience internship the summer after my sophomore year, it became clear that I had a strong passion for coding - something that once seemed so foreign as someone who came into college with no prior coding experience. But what was once foreign and abstract became something tangible and concrete. It was a frightening realization that made me question my future career options as a BME because my interests, at first glance, were not quite aligned with the BME concentration options I perceived to be available. However, little did I know that, within the “Systems” component of the Molecular, Cellular, and Systems Engineering (MCSE) track, I would be able to find my niche. MCSE offers students the freedom to explore areas outside the traditional MCSE concentration curriculum, as well as more of the computational informatics side of BME that includes machine learning and data science, both of which are particularly up my alley. My decision to select MCSE as my concentration has truly opened my eyes to the career options that I can most enjoyably see myself pursuing in the future.

Kristen Ong with the hackathon team
Kristen Ong (third from right) with team at the NYC AI Health Hackathon (Feb 2020).

Any interests outside of or in relationship to your scholarship?
In pursuit of translational experience to better understand the fields of my interests in healthcare informatics and coding, I conducted two internships over the last two summers at Merck and Harvard Medical School (HMS), where I learned skills in Robotic Process Automation and computational neuroscience research, respectively. In particular, my research at HMS examined how different networks in the brain work to process sound during sleep and wakefulness – an experience that tied in nicely with the research I was already involved in at Cornell as part of Dr. Linster’s Computational Physiology Lab. During the two years of my involvement, I used electrophysiological, behavioral, and computational methods to study the anterior olfactory nucleus system in rats.

Within Cornell, I also pursued numerous opportunities in the biomedical engineering space. For the past two and a half years, I’ve been a member of Cornell’s Biomedical Device (CUBMD) engineering team, an interdisciplinary group that designs and builds biomedical devices for research and competition. I additionally had the privilege of leading as president of Cornell’s Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) undergraduate chapter, which aims to provide prospective and current BME students with diverse academic, professional, volunteer, and social opportunities. This year, albeit a virtual two semesters, our organization was able to partner with BMES members beyond the Cornell undergraduate and graduate communities, including those from the undergraduate chapters at Yale and Columbia. We even created connections with K-12 schools to increase interest in BME, such as Leigh High School in California and elementary/middle school students within the local Ithaca community.

Kristen Ong with Vita Innovations team
Kristen Ong (bottom row, center) with the Vita Innovations team.

What stands out to you about your Cornell BME experience so far and why? 
There is nothing as exhilarating as being able to apply learned concepts from the classroom into a tangible invention to address a perceived need. For me, the moment that truly defined my BME experience was when a group of friends from CUBMD — an organization that embodies this application — and I went to the NYC AI Health Hackathon in February 2020 hosted at Weill Cornell Medicine. Taking into consideration the newly-developing, yet very relevant, COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-so prevalent problem of emergency room overcrowding, my team pitched the idea of a smart respiratory mask that monitors patient vitals. After receiving first place overall (and 3rd place in the COVID-specific prize category), we were encouraged by a number of healthcare and business professionals shortly after to form a biomedical startup with the intention of bringing our idea onto the market. One year later, Vita Innovations proudly presents our patent-pending product, VitalMask, for patient monitoring now specifically designed for nurse and triage assistance in emergency department waiting rooms. Since its conception, Vita Innovations has been accepted into a number of biotech/startup accelerator programs and is also the 1st place winner of Business Today’s 2020 International Impact Challenge, Cornell’s 2020 eLab Entrepreneurship Kickoff, and Cornell’s 2021 Student Business of the Year. As a co-founder, I can easily say that attending the Hackathon was the most defining moment of my Cornell experience, through the many doors it has opened through networking and entrepreneurship experience, and Cornell BME has certainly equipped me with the skills and knowledge needed for these very accomplishments.

What’s the next step for you?
Following graduation, I will be working as an Associate Specialist in Merck’s IT Emerging Talent Rotational Program, where I will be rotating between projects in Data Science, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and Software Engineering. I really look forward to starting this exciting journey as it is directly in the fields of study I am most curious in and passionate about, especially after having been exposed to the work culture in Merck IT over the past summer and having spoken to current students in the program about their own projects and experiences. I truly believe that this opportunity will provide me with the necessary tools and exposure to help me identify the career path I am most excited for.

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