From the 2021 Collegian | Caroline Yuk has always known she wanted to make a difference in the world.
COVID-19 brought many challenges to UA’s classrooms. For Yuk, a senior, it spurred a new challenge—figuring out how to learn all that she needed to when communication was muffled by cloth face covering and plexiglass—and an opportunity.
“I’m always thinking about how things can be better,” Yuk said. “How can things improve? And what ways can they? I think I’ve always had this mindset of wondering why we can’t change things and make them better than they were before.”
As a child, Yuk was interested in everything. She was a dedicated student and an avid tennis player. She and her twin sister were attached at the hip, and with four other siblings, their house in Crystal Lake, Illinois, was always filled with activity.
She was also born completely deaf, and learned how to navigate the world with cochlear implants from a young age.
After Yuk was born, her mom quit her job in order to take Yuk and her older brother Patrick, who is also deaf, to speech therapy and doctor’s appointments. She went to audiology clinics in the midst of her other extracurriculars, and her sister would help her if there was something she didn’t quite understand.
“I never really identified as deaf too much growing up,” Yuk said. “I did well in school and in sports. But when I got involved in UA’s audiology clinic, I saw how different my life could have been. My mom quit her job just to take me to speech language, pathologists, appointments, audiology. The surgery is extremely expensive. There are so many appointments. And that’s something that not everyone can have or afford. When I got to Alabama, I realized that this accessibility was something I really wanted to focus on.”
While participating in a research study at Indiana University, her doctor mentioned that he had a colleague at UA who worked in rural auditory health, Dr. Marcia Hay-McCutcheon. This casual conversation would go on to influence the course of Yuk’s life.
When she arrived at UA, Yuk knew she wanted to study audiology, but she wasn’t sure where to start. She took a few biology courses, but knew she wanted to take courses in other fields, including communicative disorders, computer science, and biophysics, that would help further her audiology knowledge. Then she found New College, a program that allows students to create their own degrees.
In New College, Yuk decided to do a depth study in neuroscience, which would allow her to take classes in a variety of fields. Not only was she able to take those classes, but she was able to explore other unexpected interests through required core classes and seminars, like environmentalism, cultural competence, and even fly fishing.
“My core classes were some of the best classes I took during college,” said Yuk. “One of them was fly fishing, and it was awesome. When the university had to shut down because of COVID during the middle of the semester, my professor let me take the fly fishing pole home, and I fished the rest of quarantine. It was a great hobby to pick up. And I would not have done that without New College.”
Yuk didn’t limit her campus involvement to New College—she got involved in everything she possibly could. She gained lab experience in Dr. Rebecca Allen’s psychology lab studying art therapy intervention in patients with dementia and Dr. Jack Dunkle’s biochemistry lab studying a protein that can cause antibiotic resistance. She gained hands-on experience in UA’s audiology clinic, then during internships with Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Michigan. She served as the president of the Office of Undergraduate Research ambassadors and spent her weekends as a medical advocate for patients at the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center.
To Yuk, her personal and educational experiences shaped her trajectory, giving her a path towards making a difference in her community.
“In my first three years at UA, I’ve never really had to use accommodations because of my cochlear implants,” Yuk said. “They were there if I needed them, say, if my cochlear implants were to die in the middle of class, I would have captions available. But when COVID-19 happened, and everyone was wearing masks, and everyone was suddenly six feet away from me, it became more difficult. I felt like I couldn’t take my mask off and ask ‘what are you saying?’ And I realized I was majorly struggling.”
Yuk explained that clear masks were available for faculty to use, but they were uncomfortable and fogged up easily, so many did not. Because of this, Yuk took it upon herself to research clear masks and find a solution that would work for faculty and deaf or hard of hearing students.
After researching FDA-approved clear masks, Yuk brought them to a handful of faculty members who taught deaf or hard of hearing students. These faculty members wore the masks during a class, then answered a survey about the experience. The students in these classes also had the chance to complete a survey about their experience being taught by someone wearing a clear mask. Of the 170 students surveyed, 165 said that professors and instructors should wear a clear mask if there’s a deaf or hard of hearing student in the class.
Yuk presented her work at the Levitetz Leadership Conference in April 2021. The weekend, presented by New College and the Levitetz Leadership Program, allows student entrepreneurs, researchers, and creatives to present their ideas to a panel of local and national leaders and industry experts and receive feedback, as well as funds to grow their ideas. Yuk presented as part of the Levitetz Light Bulb Awards, which provides participants with $1,500 to further their research or develop their product.
Yuk graduated in May 2021, receiving a B.S. in interdisciplinary studies focused on neuroscience. Although she’s left the Capstone for now, she plans to continue the work that was sparked when she first heard about UA’s audiology clinic.
Over the next two years, Yuk will study in the United Kingdom, thanks to funding from the Marshall Scholarship, which provides aid for American students to study any discipline in the U.K. She is the third UA student to win the award, and the first in over 40 years.
While in the U.K., Yuk will pursue postgraduate degrees in neuroscience from the University of Oxford and audiology at the University College London.
“The UK has some of the best hearing healthcare in the world,” Yuk said. “Their hearing aids are high-quality, and it’s a lot easier to receive help there than in the U.S. I’m hoping to learn how they can do that. My biggest goal is to return to the U.S. and I have some new ideas.”
After she finishes her studies in the U.K., Yuk hopes to return to the U.S. and work in rural or urban healthcare, where she can make a difference in areas that may not have the resources they need to serve their deaf or hard of hearing populations. For Yuk, this is a way she can improve her community and leave her mark on the world.