Kim Uy: Medical Innovator

Green Card Voices released a book about immigrants in Minnesota who are engaged in STEM careers. We feature four of them in excerpted form in this Innovators issue.
(photo by Sarah Whiting)

I grew up in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. My aunt, who is a U.S. citizen, sponsored my dad and our family to come to the U.S. beginning in 1991. It took ten years for our names to get through the family-based immigration waiting list, and then longer to file additional paperwork and get a visa for U.S. entry. We came here in 2006. However, my youngest brother was not allowed to join us because the original paperwork was done before he was born. It was not until 2011 that our entire family was finally together — a 15-year process to immigrate to the U.S., which is not uncommon. 

When we arrived, I remember thinking that I could be whatever I wanted. My parents owned a rice wholesale business in Cambodia, but they decided to come here because they wanted us to have better opportunities. 

My interest in science first started when I was in high school. I remember taking a biology class designed for ELL (English-Language Learner) students where I used a spinning device — now I know it is called a centrifuge — to get DNA out of my saliva. I thought that was the coolest thing and it sparked my interest in forensic science. 

I decided to join the Army Reserves, hoping I could get some law enforcement experience and pursue a career in forensics. Eventually, I realized I wanted to use science to help make things better rather than catching criminals. 

I served in the Army Reserves for six years. My experience there helped me realize that although I am a small Asian woman, I can do a lot. I can carry a gun and all the equipment. I can do long walks with 30 to 40 pounds of equipment on my shoulders. I am self-sufficient and have self-determination. 

I attended the University of St. Thomas, where I majored in neuroscience. This led me to work at a lab investigating how environmental factors affect brain structure. I learned about the traces of estrogen in our water environments that link to a change in brain structure of animals. It helped me realized how our environment can affect our everyday life, shapes the way we are, and impacts our health. This was the beginning of my interest in public health and medicine. 

I decided to apply to medical school during my junior year, but my grades in science were not competitive compared with pre-med peers. I struggled academically. I could not read textbooks easily because I did not understand enough of what was written. If I was having trouble studying for science classes, I didn’t think I would succeed in medical school. But I got a lot of support from some of my teachers to apply for medical school, which was inspiring. 

I do sometimes think about how my own social environment impacts the way I learn and the challenges I face now that I am in medical school. My ability to read and comprehend English has increased tremendously since college, but I continue to struggle with learning new vocabularies, pronouncing certain words, and forming grammatically correct sentences. I am self-conscious of this and have continued to work on it. This can be mentally draining, especially when there are added insults, like discrimination against my accent or gender. 

Sometimes I wish I had grown up here instead of Cambodia. However, these experiences make me who I am. It impacts the way I interact with others and ultimately the way I treat my patients. 

I took a trip to Cambodia to do a two-month surgery rotation because of my interest in surgical practice in low-resource settings. Cambodia is a low-income country, and requires a lot of support from the international community to help with its health care system. My goal is to do more — not just annual mission trips, but creating something sustainable that can help the Cambodians become more self-sufficient. 

I am also interested in environmental sustainability and cost-effectiveness research. In our throw-away society, we sometimes think it is okay to have disposable waste. For me, it is important to think about how we can minimize our waste and its impact on climate change. 

Hospitals are one of the major generators of waste in the U.S. The operating room contributes about 30 percent of that waste. Much of this hospital waste comes from opened but unused disposable items. 

I worked with a team on streamlining surgical procedures in order to reduce waste in transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR), a minimally invasive procedure for patients. We learned that for some patients, the procedure can be done via sedation without the anesthetic gases, a more environmentally friendly approach. 

In addition, certain surgery supplies are routinely set up in case of emergency but are thrown out without being used.

Our team stopped routinely opening supplies until they were needed. We reduced more than 1,260 pounds per year of solid waste in the medical procedure, which saved more than $20,000 in operating costs, while continuing to provide safe and effective benefits to the patient. 

When we think about innovation in healthcare, we often think about a grand idea that will revolutionize medicine. However, innovation can be as simple as thinking twice about the way we habitually do things. 


Kim Uy (she/her) will graduate with a dual degree of Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Minnesota in 2020. She hopes to pursue interests in transplant surgery and critical care after five years of general surgery training. 

For more about the Green Card Voices STEM stories, see: greencardvoices.com/stem-mn

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