Multifaceted Engineering Student Explores Many Paths to Her Future

May 23, 2014

If Angela Liu has a distinguishing quality, it is her readiness to explore new experiences. As a biomedical engineering major in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, she has had ample opportunity to pursue her interests wherever they lead.

“It’s fascinating to see where a path takes you,” she said. “I believe that when you see a door opening, you should at least see what’s behind it.”

A case in point is her enthusiasm for systems biology. After a computational biomedical engineering course opened her eyes to the potential of biological modeling, she approached Associate Professor Jason Papin and asked if she could join his Computational Systems Biology Laboratory.

“I initially thought I wanted to be as far away from computers and computer science as possible,” she said, “but taking the course and working in the lab have been eye-opening. There’s been a steep learning curve, but so far it’s been well worth it.”

Papin is leading an international effort to model the metabolic interplay between microbes in the gastrointestinal tract and human cells. This work sets the stage for probiotics that could improve health by restoring the balance between them. Liu is working with graduate student Matthew Biggs to reconstruct the metabolic networks of several bacteria.

Liu’s interest in improving health not just in the United States, but abroad, led her to complement her major in biomedical engineering with a minor in engineering business. This joint program of the Engineering School and the McIntire School of Commerce features a number of courses with a global perspective.

Her participation in the minor also led to an opportunity to participate in Deloitte Consulting’s Sophomore Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., where she participated in her first case competition. Student teams raced the clock to analyze a challenge faced by an organization and then develop and present their solution. “This whole experience was new to me,” Liu said. “I realized, though, that you can surprise yourself when you leave your comfort zone.”

Returning to Grounds, Liu organized the team of four second-year engineering students that won the U.Va. Undergraduate Case Competition. The team then went on to compete in the Deloitte National Undergraduate Case Competition in Texas.

Liu is approaching global health and development from a variety of perspectives. She is president-elect of Engineering Students Without Borders and hopes to foster a greater sense of community among the organization’s members during her tenure. She credits Leadership across Disciplines, a course she took for the engineering business minor, as helping her prepare for her responsibilities.

Last summer, Liu traveled to Rosa Grande, Nicaragua, with an Engineering Students Without Borders team to work with members of ChocoTrim, a local cooperative that manufactures chocolate bars. Their goal was to help the cooperative better meet health and safety standards. Determined to return, she secured funding from University sources to return this summer with a team that will focus on improving the community’s water distribution system.

Her firsthand experience in global health and development at the community level excited Liu’s curiosity about the larger context. Accordingly, she will spend the first 10 weeks of her summer in Washington as part of the Engineering School’s Science and Technology Policy Internship Program, the only program of its kind for engineering undergraduates in the nation. Liu will work at a government agency or think tank, where she hopes to gain insight into how policy is formulated, how policy decisions are made and how these decisions are translated into action.

Between the policy internship and the trip to Nicaragua, Liu will have three days off this summer, but that is the way she likes it.

“I’m trying to use my time at the Engineering School to explore my interests and gain a better understanding of myself,” Liu said. “There are many opportunities available. I want to take advantage of as many of them as I can.”

-- by Charlie Feigenoff

Media Contact

Josie Pipkin

Director of Communications, School of Engineering and Applied Science