Buddies for Life: Easing the Transition to UCLA

Oct 31, 2017 10:00 AM ET

Melissa Song was born in China but moved to California when she was 5 years old and stayed in the area for college at UCLA to pursue neuroscience. Hannah Pearce was born and raised in Houston, also staying in her home state for college, at Texas A&M to pursue bioengineering. But the summer before her senior year, Hannah would go to UCLA for her Amgen Scholars research, meeting up with resident-expert Melissa. Their pairing has led to a lifelong friendship and is a defining characteristic of the Amgen Scholars Program for many participants.

Hannah and Melissa were paired together as part of the UCLA buddy system. A unique part of the institution’s cohort experience, the UCLA buddy system pairs students who attend UCLA with visiting students during the Amgen Scholars Program. The goal is to acclimate new students to the campus, helping them navigate their new environment.

We chatted with Hannah and Melissa to learn more about their experience and what they have been up to since their Amgen Scholars summer in 2016.

How did the UCLA buddy system work for you? 

Hannah: The UCLA Amgen Scholars buddy system is a way for current UCLA students to partner with some of the incoming Amgen Scholars before we beginning summer research. Melissa was paired as my buddy, so she contacted me a month or so before I came to Los Angeles for the summer to welcome me to the program and let me know that she could answer any questions for me that I might have. Her contacting me definitely eased any uneasiness I might have had about moving to Los Angeles for the summer and made me more excited to begin the program.

Melissa: The five Amgen students from UCLA (they called us the "ambassadors") had a meeting with Dr. Tama Hasson and Dr. Patty Phelps, UCLA’s Amgen Scholars Program directors, during which they revealed to us three buddies that we were to reach out to before the summer and answer any questions they may have had. I don't know how exactly the pairing worked, but the idea was mainly to extend a warm welcome and ease their transition to Los Angeles. 

Did you find you had a lot in common with your buddy?

Hannah: Melissa is extremely sweet and was very easy to talk to when we first met in person last June. She is passionate about research and bettering the lives of others!

Melissa: I definitely would have to say the same about Hannah! We shared a lot of the same passions, but also came from different backgrounds – where we grew up, field of research, etc. – and it was really nice hearing about her experiences and learning more about her.

Hannah, how did you find UCLA compared to Texas A&M, and how did having Melissa as a buddy change your experience?

Hannah: UCLA was definitely very different from Texas A&M, but I really enjoyed my time in Westwood. Southern California is gorgeous and the weather was phenomenal. I met many interesting people and I got to experience life somewhere different, which was exciting. Melissa, along with the other students I met through the program, were all extremely nice. I enjoyed getting to know each of them over the summer. 

Melissa, what did you most want to impress upon Hannah as a local host?

Melissa: I, along with the other ambassadors, wanted to make sure that all the visiting Amgen Scholars had a good time and got to explore Los Angeles during their free time. While it was a little different because it was the summertime, one of the things I loved most about UCLA was the emphasis the school placed on having a balance between working hard and having fun. This was something that I tried to channel as a host.

What is your favorite memory of the program together?

Hannah: I think my favorite memories of the program were the times we all got to spend together. We were all on the same hall in the dorm, so we all could just walk outside of our rooms and sit and talk with each other. We all went out together frequently and we had breakfast together every morning. We also had a lot of great conversations in the dorm hallways over the summer.

Melissa: I would have to agree with Hannah – there wasn't one specific memory but the collection of small experiences like seeing people chatting in the hallway at all hours of the night and starting off the day with breakfast together as a group. There was a really strong sense of camaraderie!

What has your relationship been like since the program?

Hannah: Melissa and I haven't gotten to keep in close contact since the program, as senior year was a busy year for both of us. Melissa was interviewing for medical school – she's now at Case Western’s medical school! – and I was interviewing for graduate school. I'm sure she will continue to do great things in med school!

What have you been up to since the Amgen Scholars Program?

Hannah: I graduated from Texas A&M in May with my bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering and just started my Ph.D. in bioengineering at Rice University. I'm working in a biomaterials lab to develop better materials for tissue engineering and drug delivery. I was also awarded the NSF GRFP this last spring and am extremely excited and honored to be given such a prestigious fellowship for graduate school. Following the completion of my Ph.D., I could see myself working in several different environments so I am keeping my options open. I love to teach and mentor, so academia is appealing to me, but I also could see myself working for a pharmaceutical or biomedical device company. For now, I am exploring all of the existing opportunities within research. 

Melissa: I graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, as well as human biology and society. I am currently attending medical school at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine (Case Western), which is a five-year program that combines traditional medical school with a year of research. I am also working toward a master's degree in nutrition! As my first real exposure with research, the Amgen Scholars experience made me realize that I wanted to pursue a long-term career as a physician investigator. 

Any advice to future buddies paired together for the Amgen Scholars Program?

Hannah: I guess the only advice I would have would be to reach out to each other. Everyone is going to be in the same boat when the program begins, and it's always valuable to have someone that you've already gotten to know a little bit and can answer any questions you might have about the university or the area. 

Melissa: Would agree with Hannah!

What’s your general advice to Amgen Scholars?

Hannah: My advice would be to remember that you belong here and you deserve to be here. It was a little intimidating for me at first because I felt like I was surrounded by students who were much smarter and more qualified than I was. The Amgen Scholars Program is a prestigious program, and it can be a little intimidating but it's a wonderful community to be a part of. The people you are exposed to and the research you get to participate in are very exciting. Definitely enjoy it and take full advantage of the opportunity!

Melissa: It's still a bit surreal looking back that I was able to experience this program and meet all the amazing people that I did. I can say that while professionally it helped me immensely, it was really the memories and personal growth that will stay with me. I am currently roommates at Case Western with Rachel, who I met through Amgen Scholars, and to this day we reminisce about that summer!! 

To learn more about the Amgen Scholars Program, please visit AmgenScholars.com and check out the #AmgenScholars hashtag on Twitter. Follow @AmgenFoundation to stay up to date with all STEM-related news from the Amgen Foundation.