5 Questions with Kristen Hagan, NSF Fellow and Graduate Student at Duke University

kristen hagan 500Kristen Hagan grew up in the suburbs north of Houston. As an undergraduate student, she first thought she would study to be a doctor, but her physics and electrical and computer engineering courses changed her direction in a meaningful way. As an undergraduate she studied in Andrew Dunn’s optical imaging lab, and now she’s a third-year doctoral candidate and NSF Fellow at Duke University.

What type of research do you do at Duke?

I am a student in Dr. Joseph Izatt’s Biophotonics lab. We specialize in the design and fabrication of optical imaging devices for deployment in ophthalmic clinics. We collaborate closely with Duke Eye Center where doctors can use our systems to aid in surgery and for general checkups. Our lab includes investigators who are retinal and corneal surgeons.

Dr. Izatt is an excellent mentor. He knows when to apply pressure to help you excel but also when to step back so that his students learn to be independent researchers. Duke provided this perfect situation where I get to do what I love, which is building optical systems, under the mentorship of a distinguished leader in the biomedical optics field. I love lasers and optics, and the clinical aspects of those tools. This has been a great fit for me after working with Dr. Andrew Dunn in BME.

How did you decide to major in biomedical engineering, and later graduate school?

I thought I wanted to be a doctor. It seemed like BME would combine my love for math and also the course requirements if I did decide to go to medical school. The required electrical engineering courses, such as computing, were what I actually found myself really interested in. Then, I took an E&M physics course and was amazed by my professor when he derived the speed of light. He literally read from Genesis in the Bible and drew a connection between “let there be light” and fundamental E&M equations, which I thought that was so cool. This led me to join Dr. Dunn’s lab, even though I had no expectations of what that meant. I fell into this imaging and instrumentation subfield of BME, which was not on my radar at all before.

David Miller (PhD 2018) was my graduate student mentor. David and Dr. Dunn were both great to work with and completely changed my career trajectory.

Graduate students learn creative thinking and problem-solving skills to the extreme. David would propose a question to me and help me design a way to find the answer. I like that independence of finding your own solution, which is something I realized from working with David and Dr. Dunn. I pursued graduate school because of the positive experience I had doing undergraduate research with them. They taught me how to tackle research-based/open-ended questions.

What’s something that you couldn’t have predicted about graduate school? 

The stress management aspect of it. As an undergraduate, you receive a syllabus at the beginning of the semester, and you know which weeks will be challenging. In graduate school, the tasks are long-term. You come into lab one day and all goes well, or you come in the next day, your laser doesn’t work, and you’re set back for 6 months. Learning to have flexibility has been key.

What did you like about your experience at UT Austin?

The microenvironment of interesting people. Everyone in biomedical engineering is gifted and successful but each person is differently motivated. There are people who are motivated by helping others, who want to be doctors. And people who are motivated by coding and by making programs. I learned teamwork skills because it’s such a broad field that you have to work with so many types of people even within the same major.

In freshman lab, you would be divided into groups and, for example, be asked to build a robot that can pick up a raspberry. Maybe I don’t know how to do that, but someone in my group has a CS background and loves this kind of work. Someone else in my group may not care about this at all but wants to be doctor so they need to get a good grade in the course. I was able to work with people who were differently motivated, but all wanted to be successful from freshman year all the end until senior design. By the end, since the major is small, you know all these people and can kind of predict how they’ll feel about our project and what their strengths will be.

What are some of the differences between a public and private university?

One thing I’ve noticed is that diversity is inherent at UT Austin and the in the department. I don’t remember hearing a huge stressor about it while being there, but it exists in a way that makes everyone comfortable. Diversity was kind of all around, and we all needed to work together.

Somehow, UT Austin has been able to choose professors, students and administrators who welcome everyone, but you don’t even really realize how lucky you are or how diversity is encouraged because it seems to trickle from the top down. Because UT is a huge state school, you get a taste for real diversity- just like you do at a smaller private school like Duke.

How do you think your time in BME at UT Austin prepared you for where you are today?

Academically, I felt really prepared. You still have to make an effort to meet professors and find a lab that will fit for you. I learned a lot about how to go after what I needed and wanted- whether that was getting help in a class or finding a professor to learn from in a research environment. In a big school, you have to put yourself out there, so you don’t get lost in the crowd. I also think the interesting environment of the department, where we’re still in a big school, yet our major is smaller and therefore more intimate, prepared me for working in a lab.

My research mentors at UT prepared me to write fellowships for graduate school. I wouldn’t have gotten NSF or Duke affiliated fellowships without David Miller or Dr. Dunn’s help.