Young Changemaker Vivian Yee has conducted scientific and social research most folks didn’t realize was possible for a high school student
By Jeanelle Olson
Photography by Darrel Ellis
It’s possible we’ve already benefited from Vivian Yee’s work in science and public health. Last summer, the Beverly Hills teenager sent her study, titled “A Novel Epidemiological Approach to Exploring the Implications of Social Determinants of Health on Covid-19 Spread: A Call to Action for Health Equity,” to the Congressional Coronavirus Task Force to help guide them in policymaking during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, you’re still reading the Young Changemakers issue. And yes, Yee, who’s 18, has conducted scientific and social research at levels most folks didn’t realize was possible for a high school student.
Vivian didn’t always aim to work in public health — when she was younger, she figured she’d work as a medical doctor someday. As a freshman at the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Vivian recalls getting a chance to work more specifically on cell biology, which was fascinating but on its own, felt a bit clinical. “A lot of the projects were kind of distant because you don’t get to see the actual applications,” she says. “Or you don’t really see that humanistic connection.” But, she adds, “As I got exposed to other opportunities like service projects, being able to do Model U.N., and learning about governmental entities, it really helped to show me the ways that science can be most impactful.”
Over time, Vivian learned that a service-minded and intersectional approach — in her case, using “hard” science like biology to examine factors in social science and public health — could create the difference she wanted to make as a scientist. In fact, it was these types of opportunities that first sparked in Vivian a curiosity about the notion of equity, a topic that now factors centrally in her scientific interest. In elementary school, she found herself taking part in Science Olympiad, public speaking activities, and philanthropic projects. “At that age,” she says, “the difference didn’t really hit me. It wasn’t until later until I realized, ‘Oh, these [opportunities] aren’t necessarily available to everyone.’”
Noticing these disparities led her to found Helping Hands: A Students for Students Movement with her friend and schoolmate Adrianna Kallabat in 2018. Both sophomores at the time, she and Kallabat partnered with schools in Detroit and Pontiac to provide underprivileged and low-income students with tutoring, leadership seminars, and STEAM workshops. In 2020, the pandemic presented a new opportunity for Helping Hands to evolve when it forced the world to go virtual. With the help of a multi-city network of community organizers, both their volunteer and student pools grew. “We were able to help students across the state, in other states, and even in other countries” such as Spain and Lebanon, Yee says.
Vivian’s achievements reached a new level last summer, when she was chosen to participate in the annual Research Science Institute at MIT. In her application, she remembers, “I had written a lot about my passion for the biomedical sciences, and how I wanted to take it a step further and really explore public health and how science impacts people.”
Fittingly, Vivian was paired with Dr. Asad Moten, a military physician working at the Defense Health Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense. Like nearly every government agency during the pandemic, the department shifted its own research and functions to help mitigate the devastating effects of Covid-19 on individuals and communities. While many think only of military matters when they think of the Department of Defense, Moten says, the kind of work Vivian did “is and will continue to be critical for current and future public health emergency preparedness and management.”
The 2020 Research Science Institute was held virtually, so Vivian conducted her research from home, using data and tools available in the public domain. Her focus was on the social factors that impact health outcomes and the complicated ways that Covid-19 affects different populations in different ways. Once she wrote her research paper, Moten’s colleagues reviewed the manuscript before publication. And because the U.S. Congressional Coronavirus Task Force invites studies from any researcher, she sent her study unsolicited in hopes of aiding the relief efforts. (Due to disclosure requirements, Vivian is unable to share specifics on how her work was used.)
Vivian is far from done achieving great things. She heads to Harvard this fall, aiming to major in biomedical engineering or molecular and cellular biology. Beyond that, “I’m interested in pursuing a career in public health and working for organizations like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) or WHO (World Health Organization) to address larger-scale issues within health, and work on other health issues like noncommunicable diseases that highlight structural health care issues,” she says. “From a scientist perspective and also as someone who’s very passionate about social justice, our ability to better understand an issue will ultimately help us resolve it.”