Center Stage: Kristy S. Syhapanha Puts a Foot in the Door of Her Dream Career

Kristy Southysa Syhapanha never thought of studying at Georgia Tech. She didn’t think she would qualify, so she didn’t bother – at first. Thanks to friends who insisted that she should try, she submitted her application at the very last minute. She got in.

Because of Tech’s strength in engineering, Kristy first majored in biomedical engineering (BME). But the first BME course she took wasn’t a good fit, whereas she really enjoyed her first laboratory class – in chemistry. She switched majors.

On May 7, Syhapanha will receive a B.S. in Chemistry, completing a roller-coaster ride that has taken her from the highs of undergraduate research to the lows of depression. She credits her success in great part to the superb mentoring of Remington Poulin (Remy), a PhD student in the lab of Julia Kubanek.

Syhapanha’s parents arrived in the US as refugees from the Vietnam War, which had spread to Laos by the late 1960s. Unable to get higher education, both parents continue to work as laborers, even though “my dad wanted to be a doctor, and he was smart enough to be one,” Syhapanha says. “My parents instilled in me and my five sisters the importance of education as the way out of poverty into a better life,” she recalls.

With an impressive undergraduate research portfolio built from working in the Kubanek lab for nine semesters, Syhapanha is ready for the world. In June, she will start an ORISE (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education) fellowship at the Tobacco and Volatiles Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She plans to work for a few years before going back to school for a medical degree. Ultimately, she wants to be a field epidemiologist for the CDC.

How did you get into undergraduate research?

Remy was looking for students to help him with his project on crabs. I was afraid of live crabs – they run fast and are nasty – and I thought this work will help me get over that fear. At first I just took care of them. Later I was collecting crab urine and separating the components by liquid chromatography. That’s how I got started working in the Kubanek lab.

Undergraduate research had become such an integral part of my life at Tech. It is one of my most valuable experiences, helping me grow and mature as a scientist and as a person. Dr. Julia Kubanek is one of the greatest advisors I have had. Working in her lab facilitated my learning the most. I had a great time over the past few years.

I am saddest to be leaving my lab, which has become a lot like my second home.

What experiences in Georgia Tech have left a lasting impression on you?

Definitely meeting my mentor, Remy. He’s one of my greatest allies now, one of my best friends. If I never met him in my first semester, I probably would not have switched to chemistry.

He was the first teaching assistant I really liked. He’s very helpful. I could tell that he really wanted us to learn. He is patient and straightforward, sets clear expectations. He pushed me to seek answers myself. He taught me a lot of new methods. He was my mentor for everything chemistry.

I will always remember one blunder in the synthesis lab. We were supposed to wash the product with acetone. Instead I used acetic acid. I didn’t pay attention to the label on the bottle. That was a hard day. I had stayed up two nights in a row, and I had a test before the lab. I was not in my top form. I’ll never make that mistake again of working in the lab without enough sleep and rest.

I also went through a period of depression, midway in my junior year. I was falling behind in my work in a class that I really loved. I was becoming reclusive. I didn’t recognize that it was depression. But Remy noticed. One day I just started crying uncontrollably. Remy walked me to the counseling center. I was apparently a high-risk case and I was seen immediately.

Why do you want to work at the CDC?

For my AP Biology class in 10th grade, I read “The Hot Zone.” Reading about the search for the Ebola virus, I thought this is what I want to do: I’m going to work for the CDC and I’m going to find a cure for Ebola.  

So I’m really excited that I’m starting to work in CDC. When I realized that I would be analyzing flavor compounds in tobacco products, I told myself, ‘I’ve done this type of work in Georgia Tech. Thank you Dr. Larry Bottomley! That’s my analytical chem professor.’

I want to do this work for two years and then get a master’s degree in public health, and then go to medical school, and eventually work for the CDC as a field epidemiologist. I want to study disease outbreaks, but also be able to help people medically in the affected areas. This is all pretty much from remembering “The Hot Zone.”

What has surprised you about Georgia Tech?

The first thing that comes to mind is the resilience of students. We’re all working hard, and all of us have our own struggles. Everyone here is pushed to the limits. And no matter what they throw at us, we still make it through.

The institute as a whole seems to be more worried about its image and not as focused on the well-being of students. I was disappointed for example in the institute’s sexual harassment training, which I had to take because I was employed as a lab technician. In pointing out the negative effects of sexual harassment, the training’s first item was the institute’s image, before students’ well-being. It’s sad, but I see it a lot.

I would have liked to see more collaboration among the professors and departments. Each professor seems to think that their class is the most important and so they’re going to give you the most amount of work. I had to decide which assignments to do first and which ones I’ll turn in late. It was tough to make decisions like that daily.

I also wish we had more access to and awareness of help that’s available in dealing with mental health problems. There’s no course that tells you how to manage stress or recognize warning signs of depression.

Would you recommend Georgia Tech to others?

Yes. It’s such a great school. We’re pushed so hard here that no matter what the real world throws at us we will be able to take it. But I would caution the people coming here that they’re going to have to work hard. I would advise them to learn how to manage their stress. I myself know now to take a break when I feel stressed, to do something that makes me happy, like play Frisbee, and hang out with my friends.

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