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Honors Student Highlight: Thu McKenzie

| Clare McCarty

Graduation is an exciting time full of open doors and possibilities. It can also be a time of crossroads when it comes to deciding which path to follow. December graduate Thu McKenzie knows this all too well. She started her time at UW-Eau Claire as a biochemistry major, but over the course of her studies found that although she enjoyed the subject matter, lab work was not where she thrived.

She recalls reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in middle school, a book which chronicles a researcher’s journey connecting with a patient’s data she studied, and becoming fascinated by the science. This is part of what initially prompted her choice to pursue genetics and biochemistry. However, Thu began to realize that the lab work was only half the story - it’s the people behind the data that truly interested her. During this time, Thu took an American Sign Language course on a whim and discovered that this is where her passion lies. She changed her path and became a biology major with a chemistry minor and certificate in ASL in order to combine her skills and scientific background with the interpersonal and communicative aspects of sign language.

This new focus led her to accept an internship last summer working for the chair of the neuroscience department at UW Madison. Thu’s work in the lab involved studies of the auditory nerve and cochlear nuclei, which blended her biochemistry background with aspects of hearing and communication. Though she found the experience to be incredibly valuable, it confirmed that the laboratory setting was not where she wanted to be. It did, however, solidify that she wanted Deaf culture and hearing to be an integral part of her career.

Thu credits the Honors Program for providing an environment of academic exploration that encouraged her to follow her passions. “I think the Honors Program promotes a level of engagement and places value on individual contribution that is not seen elsewhere. It is really focused on you and what you can get out of it, so it’s best to use that to your benefit. That’s why it’s really worth whatever you are willing to put into it.” Thu has shared this Honors philosophy over the semester with the Honors 100 class she mentors. 

She emphasized that in the Honors classes she has taken, professors are open to adjusting assignments and evaluations to each student’s needs and what they will benefit most from. Thu’s favorite Honors course, Honors 385: Mentoring Youth with Differing Abilities, exemplified this flexibility.

Alongside her mentee and peers, she learned boundaries and helping strategies without being condescending or controlling. These are skills that are extremely important to her as a hearing person entering a career exploring deafness and Deaf culture. It’s impossible to understand the full experience of a Deaf person having never been Deaf, so being an advocate and ally requires deep empathy and respect. Being a mentor helped Thu grow these skills and has equipped her well for a future of advocacy.

Now the dreaded question: plans after graduation? Luckily, Thu has a few options. She is considering applying for a position at Epic Systems Corporation, where she would work to create and maintain a unified system for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the healthcare system. Working in this setting would cater to her interests in the medical field while focusing on patient care and communication with providers, rather than hard data and laboratory research. Systems like these are so important because while doctors may have the medical knowledge to understand deafness, many are not able to actually communicate effectively with the patient.

Another exciting option Thu has is furthering her education at Gallaudet University—the nation’s only university in which all programs are designed for Deaf and hard of hearing individuals—with a PhD in educational neuroscience. While the undergraduate programs are specifically intended for the Deaf, Gallaudet’s graduate school welcomes hearing individuals with the clear intention to contribute constructively to the Deaf community. Either option, whether in the workforce or higher education, would integrate her background in biology and chemistry while fueling her passion for both the medical and cultural sides of Deafness.

Thu McKenzie is a fantastic example of what following your own path can mean. When I asked what gave her the push and confidence to make the leap from heavy lab study to an area she is passionate about, she shared a quote that perfectly sums up her ambition and drive; “From compassion, to passion, to action. Instead of pursuing something you feel like you are supposed to do, use your existing interests to drive you to achieve something you’re genuinely proud of. This is what I hope to follow in my future academic endeavors and professional life.”