Photo: JL Sousa, NVR
Brittany Wong, a 2010 Blue Oak graduate, has a vision for her future, and it definitely involves helping people see better.
This 22-year-old graduated from Duke University on May 13, earning two degrees: a B.S. in Neuroscience and a B.A. in French studies, plus a chemistry minor. She plans to enter medical school and become a doctor — most likely in ophthalmology.
Come September, Wong will begin a particularly eye-opening experience. Wong, who lives in Napa, has been awarded a Fulbright study and research award. She’ll then travel to Geneva, Switzerland, where she will live and study for one year.
At the ophthalmology department at the University of Geneva, Wong will work with a team of scientists on a year-long research project. The group will study age-related macular degeneration, a leading worldwide cause of adult vision loss.
Hearing the news that she’d been chosen for the Fulbright, Won said she was both surprised and excited. “It really didn’t set in for a long time,” she said. “It still is quite insane that my job for the next year will be to do research in Switzerland.”
The Fulbright is widely considered one of the most prestigious scholarship programs. It awards approximately 8,000 grants annually. Established in 1946, Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes, served as heads of state or government in their home countries and have been elected to the U.S. Congress.
“I’m very excited but also definitely nervous moving to a different country,” Wong admitted. There will “definitely be a learning curve.” While she does speak French, Wong anticipates challenges with a new culture, daily routines, different currency, weather, food and more. Plus, she’s never lived that far away from her home in Napa for that long.
Wong doesn’t seem afraid to challenge herself. She was born at Travis Air Force Base, where her father was serving in the military at the time, and grew up in Napa. As a high school student, she decided to enroll at a private high school in Oakland called the College Preparatory School.
Fortunately, her mother, Velarie Wong, a food scientist, works in the same area. The two made the drive every work and school day for four years. Her father, Dr. Andrew Wong, is a cardiologist in Napa.
During her junior year in high school, Wong was named Napa Valley’s Distinguished Young Woman 2014. The program was formerly called Junior Miss. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at Duke in North Carolina. Until then, she’d never lived in the southeast U.S. before. “I wanted to go outside my comfort zone,” she said of choosing to attend Duke. “It was a good choice for me in terms of personal growth and maturation,” Wong said. “I enjoyed it.”
Wong described the Fulbright application process as extensive. “There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work and hoops” to jump through, she said. First of all, Wong had to find the organization or business that would “sponsor” her for the program. The University of Geneva is serving that role.
Ophthalmology has been a key interest of Wong’s for many years. While in high school, Wong volunteered at the Eye Care Center of Napa Valley and in the operating room at Queen of the Valley Medical Center. She shadowed Dr. Richard Beller, an ophthalmologist at the Eye Care Center, for several years during high school. “He is the mentor who initially inspired me to pursue a career in medicine,” she said.
“My experiences interacting with Dr. Beller’s patients with age-related macular degeneration were what prompted me to seek research opportunities at Duke and UC Davis,” and next in Geneva. Ultimately, she hopes to do both surgical and clinical research work. “That would be an incredible job,” she said.
The Fulbright grant comes at the perfect time for Wong. She already planned to take a year off between college and medical school, “for a change of pace.” Because medical school is ahead of her, she anticipates that “I’ll be in academia for a long time.”
The Fulbright program offers her a chance to do something different and “to be in the real world for a bit,” she said. “I’ve been a student for nearly all my life,” she said. “I thought it’d be helpful to have a bit of life experience myself.”
Besides working at the university in Geneva, “I wanted to work on my cultural competency and I thought it’d be a fascinating experience to be aboard.” The Fulbright grant provides Wong about $1,900 per month. That amount is meant to cover her living expenses in Geneva. She’s already secured housing nearby and will open her first Swiss bank account.
As she prepares to move to Geneva, this summer Wong is doing something she’s hardly ever done before: taking the summer off from school or work. “This is my first summer in a long time when I haven’t had something organized, which has been nice, but odd,” she said.
“Usually my summers are really busy.”
We are all very proud of Brittany and wish her the very best of luck in her continued studies and future career.
Republished with permissions from the Napa Valley Register