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From faltering English to leadership of a medical student group

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Spring


One Saturday when he was 10 years old, Hao Feng arrived in the United States from Shijiazhuang in northern China. Feng, who then knew fewer than a dozen words of English, started school on the following Monday. Today he speaks English with no trace of an accent, but the linguistic and cultural barriers of those early years have informed his approach to medicine.

Feng, now taking a fifth year for research at the School of Medicine, was recently elected chair of the Council of Student Members (CSM) of the American College of Physicians (ACP). His role as a leader of the internal medicine interest group during his second year of medical school led to an invitation to join the ACP Connecticut chapter’s Governor’s Council. The organization’s support for medical students so impressed him that he applied for a position on the CSM, which represents the interests of approximately 28,000 students. As chair, Feng will become a voting member of the Board of Regents, the ACP’s main policy-making body. He is the only medical student in the country to hold that privilege. “I will represent the opinions and interests of medical students across the nation,” he said. Those interests, he said, include funding for graduate medical education, the huge debt burden faced by medical students, and changes in the health care system.

Feng explored law, biotechnology, teaching, and engineering as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, and graduated with a degree in molecular and cell biology. Medicine—the only profession in which he felt he could make an impact on both individuals and on society—became his first choice for a career.

Feng is well on his way to gaining experience in these areas. As a Doris Duke Clinical Research Fellow, he is studying the mechanism behind photopheresis, an immunotherapy treatment that is effective for cutaneous T cell lymphoma, transplant rejection, autoimmune disorders, and graft-versus-host disease.

Feng also volunteers at HAVEN, a free clinic staffed by Yale students under the supervision of faculty. His early struggles with English, he said, “gave me a respect and understanding of how important it is to accept diversity and keep in mind that other people have different beliefs.” Most patients at the clinic are Hispanic. When a patient told him that he felt “ice in his veins,” Feng probed further. Although he and his colleagues were unable to make a definitive diagnosis, they asked the patient to return for another visit. “There are certain things patients offer because they feel it’s important, and if we ignore that aspect we may be missing a component of what they’re trying to tell us,” he said.

Feng is still trying to decide on a specialty. In addition to being both a physician and a researcher, he would like to advocate for better health care and influence health care legislation. He believes he will be able to fit it all in. “If you’re passionate about something, you’ll make time for it,” he said.