Student Spotlight: Karen Ru

Picture of Karen Ru in her cap and gown
Image courtesy of Karen Ru

This week’s student spotlight features Karen Ru, a graduating senior from the class of 2024. Ru is part of the 2024 Graduation with Distinction (GwD) cohort. She is enthralled with her experience in the GwD program and would recommend, encourage, and urge her younger classmates not to miss this incredible opportunity.

Originally from Farmington, Connecticut, Ru arrived at Duke University amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. But Ru didn’t let that dampen her experiences and made the most of her time as an undergraduate student at a world-class university. Ru majored in Neuroscience with minors in Chemistry and Psychology. Her decision to pursue Neuroscience stemmed from an early fascination with the brain and human behavior. It all started with a dissection of a sheep’s brain, Ru recalled. This opportunity arose when Ru was a middle schooler at a John’s Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer camp. Since then, she has appreciated gaining an in-depth scientific understanding of the brain’s circuitry and chemistry, as well as the processes behind phenomena such as learning, memory, emotion, and social interaction.

She chose Neuroscience as her major because it integrates multiple disciplines from molecular and cellular biology to pharmacology, psychology, and computer science. Like yin and yang, theoretical learning is only one part of the neuroscience discipline; the other integral part is application. Ru loves applying knowledge gained in the classroom to ongoing research in multiple areas of medicine through critical thinking, problem-solving, laboratory skills, and analytical techniques. It was no surprise that Ru involved herself in laboratory research very early in her undergraduate study.

In the spring semester of her sophomore year, Ru was fortunate enough to get involved in animal behavior research at Yin Lab, headed by Dr. Henry Yin, and she continued there until her graduation. Dr. Yin also served as Ru's mentor for her research project, which she used to write her honors thesis to complete her GwD in Neuroscience.

For her research project, Ru studied basal ganglia circuitry, specifically the Globus Pallidus Externa, and its role in facilitating movement. During this process, Ru learned to handle and train mice on a multitude of behavioral tasks and to utilize in vivo electrophysiology and optogenetics to monitor single-unit activity in real time. In other words, Ru was able to visualize what was happening in the brain during what one might think is a simple task, such as raising or lowering the head. Balancing the GwD process with her other classes, responsibilities in the lab, and her part-time job as a medical assistant, Ru admitted that although some tasks felt daunting at times, the reward was well worth the journey. She felt very grateful to have the support of Dr. Makeba Wilbourn and Dr. Leonard White in addition to her mentor, Dr. Yin. The top three pieces of advice she has for all future GwD students are:

  1. Stay on track! The purpose of the thesis class is to help spread out the workload so that no one finds themselves having to write the entire dissertation paper in a week.
  2. Ask for help. If you are stuck or have a concern, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Not only can you ask your lab PI, but your thesis professor and TA are also there for you. There’s no such thing as a silly question.
  3. Be confident - no one knows your research better than you do. Remember that you are the expert!

Ru feels confident in how much she has grown not only as a scholar, but also as an individual through this thesis process. She hopes to continue integrating this area of study in Neuroscience into her future endeavors. Ru shared the stage with her fellow 2024 classmates earlier this May as they reflected and celebrated the conclusion of their undergraduate careers. Ru is taking a gap year to apply for medical school. During this gap year, she will be working with the Smilowitz Lab at the University of Connecticut Health Center, continuing her investigations in Glioblastoma and breast cancer. She hopes to utilize this opportunity to build her knowledge and apply her analytical skills across multiple project topics. In July, Ru will be moving to Boston to start her new role as a medical assistant at Beth Israel Lahey Health, as she enjoys interacting with both patients and their providers in matters surrounding the patient’s health and wellbeing.

Wrapping up her time at Duke is bittersweet for Ru. While she will continue her role as a volunteer co-coordinator, she will miss Saturday morning deliveries with the Root Causes Fresh Produce Program (FPP) and the pups at Puppy Kindergarten. Root Causes FPP is an organization created by students at Duke University School of Medicine in collaboration with the Duke University Health System. They pack and deliver donated produce from local farms to patient doorsteps every Saturday in efforts to promote healthy eating and alleviate food insecurity in Durham. The Duke Puppy Kindergarten provides service dogs for Canine Companions, an organization that focuses on matching service dogs to individuals with disabilities. As a volunteer there, Ru has the opportunity to help train the pups, teaching them important commands while getting some much-needed stress relief by being around bouncy and playful puppies. Her time at Duke has been full and busy, but it has created so many memories that she will hold onto for years to come. Ru is excited to start the new chapter while continuing to integrate these areas of study in Neuroscience into her future endeavors as she pursues a career in medicine.