Profile with Caroline Huang

Caroline Huang (Delaware & Merton 2010) is a DPhil candidate researching the ethical issues surrounding access to care for harmful BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, which are linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. She holds an SB in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she founded the MIT branch of Camp Kesem, a summer camp for the children of cancer patients.  

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Caroline Huang: As far as family goes, home is Newark, Delaware, where I grew up and where my parents still live. As far as cities go, I feel most at home in Boston, where I went to college and where I’d like to return after I finish my DPhil.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Caroline Huang: Clueless was recently on cable, so I decided to go to the source and read Jane Austen’s Emma. Per usual, Austen’s dialogue is witty, though there’s nothing quite as memorable as the Clueless catchphrase “As if!”  

Rhodes Project: What’s playing on your iPod right now?

Caroline Huang: I had a Christmas in July moment last week, so I broke out the London Symphony Orchestra’s recording of The Nutcracker. Otherwise, I’ve been listening to a mixture of The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and The Script.

Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Caroline Huang: I had pretty diverse (or scattered?) aspirations: veterinarian, pastry chef, sports writer, or neuroscientist. I had a serious tennis injury in high school that was misdiagnosed and mistreated for a year, though, and that experience oriented me toward medical ethics and health policy.

Rhodes Project: Tell me a little bit about what you’re working on at Oxford?

Caroline Huang: My DPhil examines ethical issues surrounding access to care for harmful BRCA1 and BRCA2 (breast cancer susceptibility genes 1 and 2) mutations, which are linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. I’m taking a pretty broad view of what it means to have “access to care” in cancer genetics communities in the US and UK. Financial access – who qualifies for testing, and at what cost – is a natural starting point, and there are plenty of other interesting questions such as whether race, ethnicity, and religion affect a woman’s likelihood to pursue testing or certain treatments, and if so, how concerned should we be with that discrepancy. It’s been especially exciting to work on this topic in the past few months, given the recent US Supreme Court decision that invalidated Myriad Genetics’ patent on these genes and Angelina Jolie’s New York Times op-ed that detailed her decision to undergo testing and have subsequent preventive mastectomy.

Rhodes Project: What’s something interesting that you’ve done or that’s happened to you in the last year?

Caroline Huang: I’ve had the opportunity to serve on the advisory board of the Oxford Hub – Oxford’s public service center for university students – and it’s been interesting to see how student service is viewed in Oxford and around the UK. Coming from MIT, I expected that a majority of students would be engaged in some form of service. Not only do fewer than 10 percent of Oxford students participate in some kind of service, but service isn’t even viewed as a particularly good use of students’ time. Some faculty members actively discourage their undergraduates from participating because they think the students’ marks might suffer. Several of the full-time Hub staff also cautioned me to limit my use of the word “volunteering,” which students might interpret as “poorly run, fluffy programs.” 

Needless to say, this was rather surprising at first, though it was gratifying to hear that the Hub wanted to address these challenges head-on. I ended up working with two other graduate students to coordinate impact assessment of the largest Hub program, Schools Plus, which pairs university student tutors with local school pupils. Our team’s favorite phrase is probably “evidence-based,” followed closely by “rigorous,” and we’re really pleased that the program was re-launched this year with an increased focus on providing a high-quality, thoughtfully developed yearlong program that addressed a serious local need. (Despite having world-class universities in Oxford and Oxford Brookes, the county has some of the worst state school test scores in Britain.) The 2012-13 project report is due to come out any day now, and we’re excited to see how an increased emphasis on appropriate monitoring and evaluation affected the program. If the results are as positive as they seemed to be throughout the year, we’ll be able to use the report to advocate for more university funding of student service projects and possibly encourage more faculty to lend their academic expertise to local programs. On a personal level, I’m really glad that my work with the Hub has led to some incredible friendships and a better understanding of Oxford as a city and university.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

Caroline Huang: I’d remind myself to pursue only what I was really passionate about, which is probably the same advice I’d give myself today. If I’m excited enough to consider working on something early on a Saturday morning – despite not really being a morning person – that’s a good sign that I’ve chosen the right project, hobby, or research topic.

Rhodes Project: What would an ideal day look like?

Caroline Huang: Any ideal day starts with drinking iced coffee and catching up on sports scores and health news. If I’m at school, I’d want to log some solid time on both academic and extracurricular projects, with some breaks for exercise (going to a yoga class or soccer practice) and friends (meeting up for coffee or dinner). If I’m on vacation, I’d want to relax by curling up with a good book, playing tennis, trying out a new recipe, taking a nap, and/or watching one of the Boston pro teams in person or on TV.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Caroline Huang: I’d want to focus on better preventive care that is readily available to all. Whether it’s children who have poor hearing as adults because their earaches were never treated, men who become obese because their nutrition and exercise habits were never addressed, or women who are diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer because they were unable to have regular mammograms, there are so many examples of expensive, hard-to-treat health problems that could have been mitigated, if not outright prevented, through early diagnosis and intervention. We keep hearing about ballooning healthcare costs around the world, and preventive care has great potential to stem those costs and simultaneously improve people’s quality of life.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Caroline Huang: Serving as a camp advisor for Camp Kesem’s University of Pennsylvania chapter, which will provide a free, weeklong summer camp for the children of cancer patients in mid-August. “Kesem” means “magic” in Hebrew, and as clichéd as it sounds, the week is nothing short of magical: kids arrive feeling isolated because of their parent’s cancer, and they leave with a lasting support network of campers and counselors and the knowledge that they will always be welcome back at camp. Kesem is particularly meaningful to me this year because I had a bad accident in May and have had to put almost everything on hold since then, but my doctors and therapists are tailoring my treatments so that I can attend.

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