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First-generation American and first-generation college student found his passion in research and medicine

NEOMED’s Commencement Ceremony was held Saturday, May 6, at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall. Among the graduating class was Gordon Hong, who earned his Doctor of Medicine degree.

According to a 2020 report from the National Resident Matching Program, the average student has about seven abstracts, presentations and publications by the time they receive their Doctor of Medicine degree.

And then there’s Gordon Hong, M.D.

His Google Scholar page lists 16 peer-reviewed publications since 2019, including two on which he is the lead author. The number does not include conference presentations and other scholarly work.

As an undergraduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Hong became interested in research, though at that time he was looking at issues of well-being, experiences of East African immigrants and health literacy with his coursework in anthropology and human biology. During a gap year, he took a research position in the Department of Urology at Emory, working on projects relate to kidney cancer.

“That kind of set the foundation for a lot of my interests coming into med school,” he said.

First Generation College Student

A first-generation American and first-generation college student, Dr. Hong grew up in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

“My mother was an immigrant from Southern China. My dad, a refugee from Vietnam, came to Cleveland, and they met here,” he shared. “My parents never finished college, so I’m the first person in my family to complete college, and pursue further education.

His parents own Siam Café on Cleveland’s east side. While the younger Hong helped out at the restaurant while growing up, his parents consistently stressed the importance of education and encouraged him early on to pursue an M.D.

“They emphasized how being a doctor is a very noble pursuit,” Dr. Hong recalled. “I had that in the back of my mind, starting from a very young age. But it didn’t really become my dream until later on when I met some really inspiring physicians, including my mentors at Emory.”

While those dreams were forming, he just knew he did not want to be in the restaurant business.

“I spent a lot of my childhood in the restaurant on weekends, doing jobs here and there, in the front as a cashier, waiting tables, even washing the dishes and helping my dad cook in the back. So I knew I did not want to do that,” he said. “But looking back, I think a lot of my work ethic and a lot of my compassion with people comes from my experiences in the restaurant.”

During his gap year at Emory, Dr. Hong worked with urologists Kenneth Ogan, M.D., and Viraj Master, M.D., Ph.D. He was inspired by “the way that they cared for their patients and their compassion that they had towards them and the kinds of impacts that they made on patients’ lives. The idea of becoming a physician actually became my dream after encountering all these really great people and seeing what they’ve accomplished,” he said.

A Passion for Research

After coming to NEOMED, Dr. Hong’s interest in research continued, and he went on to publish several articles with his new mentor, nephrologist Rupesh Raina, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine.

A project of which he is particularly proud is a 2022 publication in Current Pediatrics Reports on best practices, the latest research and advances in apheresis techniques and therapies.

“[Dr. Raina] allowed me a lot of independence in that project,” he explained. “I was able to lead a research team and took the paper from the beginning stages to publication under his leadership. He provided a lot of independence, but also guidance when it was needed, and I think that was a really positive learning experience for me.”

Dr. Hong also had the opportunity to act as a research advocate and help other students connect to research opportunity. He was a student leader on the Committee for Student Clinical Research and helped found the NEOMED Research Symposium. He credits both opportunities to the mentorship of Steven Schmidt, Ph.D., retired vice president for research.

“For me research has really been a passion,” Dr. Hong said. “A lot of people see it as a task, but I was really interested in it. Because it has an ability to make a larger impact on patients beyond just your direct care. Doing research is basically being able to influence practice in the future, and I thought that was really powerful.”

How did he fulfill his passion for research while maintaining his studies in the College of Medicine?

“After I was finished studying, I set aside a little bit of time, either once week or once a day to do a little bit of writing, to do a little bit of exploring, to read up on literature, and to expand my knowledge a little bit more,” he said.

He plans to continue making time for research during his residency in internal medicine at Case Western/University Hospitals Cleveland.

“That is part of the reason why University Hospitals was a great fit to for me – because of their strong research track record and research excellence,” he shared.

Finding the Way

“I don’t have any family or family friends in medicine, so I was kind of in the dark on how to navigate the waters,” Dr. Hong said about his first experiences in medical school. “I’m thankful for a lot of the mentors that I had, who helped me to get to the places where I needed to be.”

He also found it helpful to talk to others who made the journey before him.

“I always made a point to talk to the students ahead of me. Even on the residency trail, I reached out to people in different programs that I was applying to, and I would find some of them at places very far away, which was really surprising to me,” he said. “For example, I interviewed at a program out in California and a fellow that was in that hospital is a NEOMED graduate. I think that just goes to show, even though we might not have a huge network, we have people everywhere that are willing to advocate for us.”

What advice would he give his M1 self or others who are beginning medical school?

“I would tell them to keep pushing forward,” he said. “I think everybody that goes into medical school, myself included, has a sense of doubt. Is this where I belong? Is this right? Do I fit in here? Am I going to make it? Realize that you are here for a reason, and you were chosen for a reason, because admissions committees know that you have what it takes. So just keep pushing forward and keep at it and work hard and don’t be afraid.”