Swords, stars and human body systems
Cynthia Liu succeeds in the lab, on Harvard fencing team
Swordsmanship and a passion for biology brought Cynthia Liu to Harvard.
Once she arrived, she considered concentrating in something like molecular and cellular biology tothelp prepare her for med school, but what if she wanted to go into the biotech industry?
Thinking bioengineering might be a good middle ground, she took ES53: Quantitative Physiology as a Basis for Bioengineering, the introductory course taught by Linsey Moyer, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies in Biomedical Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). That class proved to be exactly what Liu was looking for; she’s now a fourth-year student on her way to an A.B. in biomedical engineering.
“That course taught me physiology, but it was also quantitative,” Liu said. “It was really cool to learn how the heart works, but also how we can calculate how much blood is pumped in a certain period of time. We could use equations to think about the heart as a mathematical model and not just a collection of biology factoids to memorize.”
A native of Canada who grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Liu began fencing at 7 years old. By high school, she’d been named to the Canadian National Fencing Team and posted multiple top-10 finishes at prestigious competitions like the Junior Pan-American Championships. Several schools tried to recruit her, but Harvard was her top choice.
“The academics are extremely prestigious, and the fencing team culture just stood out,” she said. “The team is so close-knit, and that’s something I could see even as a high schooler just visiting.”
Four years later, Liu captains the Crimson women’s fencing team. Her fencing weapon, the foil, is the lightest of the three traditional fencing swords (foil, épée, saber). It also has the fewest targets on the opponent’s body that score on contact. Liu’s had great success with the foil here, qualifying for the NCAA Championships twice in her first three years.
Being a Division I student-athlete isn’t easy. Crimson students can spend up to 20 hours per week in practice or team meetings and fencing tournaments can easily take up an entire weekend.
It’s critical for Liu to balance coursework and athletics. Her strategy: take full advantage of professors’ office hours.
“At this point in my life, I read over the problem set, start a little bit of it and then finish almost all of it during office hours,” she said. “It makes my life so much easier, and it’s been really good for my academic confidence because I spend less time just struggling with the material. I know that at Harvard a lot of people feel impostor syndrome but learning to ask for help and showing up to office hours out of sheer practicality was really helpful for me.”
Working in Harvard research labs also built Liu’s confidence as a bioengineer. She was part of the Mooney Lab at SEAS last semester, and last year was in the Mitragotri Lab. Her research with David Mooney, Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering, involved finding ways to maintain the mechanical properties of thick hydrogels even as their thickness was reduced.
“A lab setting is very open-ended, and you’re allowed to be a lot more creative in coming up with your own problem and solution,” she said. “That lack of structure was really tough at first, because I didn’t feel comfortable or confident, and I didn’t feel like I had the breadth or depth of knowledge to operate in a lab and run experiments on my own/ Being in a lab forced me to become comfortable with that, and I gained a whole new sense of confidence that what I’d learned is applicable, and that I’m capable of learning what I don’t already know.”
While at Harvard, Liu has also sought out several internship and extracurricular work experiences to add another dimension to her education. As a Harvard Global Health Institute Intern at Mass Eye & Ear, she started learning about biotech and pharma companies. That segued into the gap year in 2020-21, when she worked on the sustainability and sourcing team at Bristol Myers Squibb. This past summer, she was a Nike product management intern.
“I realized that research was not really for me, so I pivoted to approaching biotech from more of a business side, which is how I ended up doing a co-op at Bristol Myers Squibb,” she said. “That was a really interesting experience for me. It was more from a business perspective than a hands-on research experience, but I really liked that.”
Liu has never wanted to limit herself academically. While studying biomedical engineering, she also completed a citation in French language and literature, then turned her attention to a secondary in astrophysics. The connections she found between her concentration and secondary only strengthened her love of STEM.
“It made outer space feel a little bit more real to me, being able to apply trigonometry and physics that I’d learned in my courses,” Liu said.
Harvard’s women’s fencing team will host the NCAA Regional tournament on March 12. Liu wants to get back to Nationals one more time, hoping her final season will be her best yet.
“Our team is in a really good place, and I’m extremely proud of them,” she said. “They’ve worked so hard this entire season, and at this point we’re moving really efficiently. I anticipate a really successful Regionals.”
Matt Goisman | firstname.lastname@example.org