Derek Dang, graduating from UAB with honors, will present to legislators at the prestigious Posters on the Hill event, hosted by the Council on Undergraduate Research.

Derek Dang has accomplished a great deal in his four-year collegiate career at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. From being named a 2022 Outstanding Student in Neuroscience to graduating in spring 2022 with a 4.0 GPA as a double major in neuroscience and international studies and a student of UAB’s Honors College, Dang has fulfilled every opportunity he could while a Blazer.

One of the accomplishments Dang is most proud of is his selection as one of just 60 college students from across the country and the only UAB student to virtually present his research, “Hesitant or Resistant: Impact of a COVID-19 Interventional Study Among Undergraduate Students’ Perceptions of the Pandemic and the COVID-19 Vaccines,” to legislators at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s Posters on the Hill research competition April 26 and 27, 2022.

The annual event offers undergraduate researchers and their mentors the opportunity to be heard on Capitol Hill, improve advocacy efforts, present their compelling research and share messages at the federal level about the importance of funding undergraduate research.

“During my time at UAB, I was afforded opportunities to dive into my passion for research and teaching, specifically in bridging the gap for students between what they are learning in the classroom and how it relates to the real world,” Dang said. “I am honored to present my research findings about undergraduate students’ perceptions of the COVID-19 vaccines to legislators at Posters on the Hill. This opportunity allows me to help leaders understand the importance of incorporating service-learning into classroom instruction and highlights community engagement for cutting-edge topics. Indeed, it is an incredible opportunity and one that will demonstrate the importance of continuing to support and fund undergraduate research.”

Dang’s research, conducted under the mentorship of Samiksha Raut, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology, and in concert with UAB’s Office of Service Learning and Undergraduate Research, explored undergraduate students’ perceptions related to hesitancy and/or resistance in getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and, most importantly, exploring the sources of their scientific information to arrive at this decision.

Key takeaways from the research found that students generally were not hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccinations but were neutral and understood that it would take a group effort to get society back to a place of normalcy. Dang’s findings indicated that much of the news students received came from social media and was not always from trusted medical sources, which sparked the idea to invite UAB experts to speak about the COVID-19 vaccines and the importance of herd immunity achieved via vaccination.

“In learning more about what students actually thought about the pandemic, we felt it was key to make changes in the classroom to create more positive outlooks,” Dang said. “We hosted different presentations from UAB infectious diseases and public health experts to really display and share information with students in an approachable way. We’re fortunate to be on a campus with such rich medical expertise, and it was a natural fit to fuse these together.”

For mentors like Raut, self-starter students like Dang who value research and its broader application in the real world are a game-changer.

“Derek’s natural motivation and devotion to service-learning is what you hope for,” Raut said. “Getting the opportunity to mentor students who are willing to make a change in society and see the value of undergraduate research is a treat, and being able to support Derek in this capacity has been really gratifying.”

Exploring his passions

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Dang was drawn to attend UAB because of the university’s commitment to diversity and the range of opportunities presented to students on the academic medical campus.

“I knew I wanted to go into the field of medicine one day, but I also have a strong love for the humanities and conducting research. Where else can you have the chance to pursue everything you’re interested in?” Dang said.

Through the UAB Honors College Personalized Pathway program and his relationships with professors and peers in the College of Arts and Sciences, Dang was able to merge many of his passions through a tailored curriculum to maximize the most of his undergraduate experience. In addition to his double majors, Dang double minored in chemistry and Spanish, with his interest in Spanish shaping his future plans as an internal medicine physician. Dang will begin his graduate studies in medicine at UAB’s Heersink School of Medicine in fall 2022, with the goal of working with and treating diverse populations.

“I really want to pursue a career as a physician with an emphasis on medical education and treating diverse peoples, specifically Hispanic populations,” Dang said. “I always think ‘how can I apply what I am learning?’ and minoring in Spanish is a great example of how I can connect directly with patients as I treat them in the future.”

This spring, Dang is applying his Spanish and research skills on the ground in Lima, Peru, with UAB’s School of Public Health through the Minority Health Research Training program. In collaboration with UAB Institute for Human Rights and Universidad Privada del Norte, Dang is assessing the access and inclusion of people with disabilities in Lima and how the built environment impacts the lives of locals, from determining whether sidewalks are equitable to how daily tasks can be improved for those with disabilities.

In reflection of his time at UAB, Dang is confident that being a Blazer made the difference in his collegiate career and his future.

“If you want it, you’ve got it at UAB,” Dang said. “Any interest that you want to set your mind to — it’s here. Politics, medicine, science: Every opportunity is waiting for you at UAB.”

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