Meet Caroline Hwang, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Dr. Hwang specializes in the treatment of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Here’s what you won’t find on her resume:
The rule of three: She’s one of three sisters, she’s lived in three states, she speaks three languages, and she studied three topics in college.
“I’m the middle child — one of three very outspoken girls. My father was definitely outnumbered! I was born in Texas, but only lived there for six months before my family moved to California for most of my childhood. Later, I fulfilled my dream of living in New York during my residency at Columbia University.
“I speak English, Spanish and what I refer to as ‘household’ Taiwanese.
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“As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I majored in molecular and cell biology, but I also double-minored in ethnic studies and business administration.”
Growing up, she considered a career in dance.
“I studied ballet pretty seriously from 3 to 18 years old, and actually danced professionally for a year with a small ballet company in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the end, I decided not to pursue it as a career — for the sake of my feet! Dance did teach me a lot about determination and work ethic, though. Ballerinas are notorious perfectionists. They have to have passion for the process, not just the performance. You also have to ignore a lot physical pain on a daily level for a greater goal. I guess you could say medical training is not so different.”
She also considered a career in social work.
“I’ve always somehow been drawn to helping young people. It’s what I do now since Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis affect younger patients. Before medical school, I actually worked as a social worker in a group home for pregnant teens living in the foster care system. Most of these girls came from physically or emotionally abusive backgrounds and were 13 or 14 years old. They were kids themselves, but they just wanted to give their children a better life. The work was difficult though, and I felt limited working within the system. I chose medicine, instead. I still get to work with young people, but I act like more of a partner in their health.”
She can thank her father for her love of science.
“My parents immigrated from Taiwan in the ’70s, during the ‘brain drain’ of many parts of Asia. He had a PhD in biochemistry, and worked in academia and industry to develop treatments for HIV and the hepatitis viruses. I remember clearly the many weekends he would take me to his lab. I sat quietly, knowing that amazing discoveries were happening there. My father had a unique spin on science, as he wanted to find novel compounds isolated from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that have been used for centuries to treat chronic illnesses.”
She’s open to alternative medicine.
“There is a big difference between Western and Eastern medicine. Chinese medicine is really holistic, and can often be better for dealing with things such as fatigue, stress and certain types of pain. If my patients are interested, I am open to using alternative medicine to complement their treatment. Crohn’s disease and colitis can really affect a persons’ quality of life, so I look for treatments that will restore a sense of balance and normalcy.”
She has a strong gag reflex.
“My family jokes that I can always be counted on to talk about poop at the dinner table. It’s usually someone else who brings it up and asks me questions. But honestly, that’s my job. I treat chronic gastrointestinal diseases that can cause diarrhea and cramping. These are not the types of things people want to discuss with their friends or coworkers. With my patients, I try to neutralize the stigma of these symptoms and make them feel comfortable. I try to use humor whenever appropriate.”
She’ll never give up medicine.
“I can honestly say I think I’ll probably be doing this forever. I love my patients. I love the research. I love working at an academic medical center as it lets me see the entire spectrum of medicine — from the most straightforward cases to the most complex. I’m never bored.”