Delayed but Not Detoured

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The 2008 financial collapse put Emily Swanson's plans on hold but she revived them here at UW Tacoma.

The 2008 financial crisis upended many people's lives, including Emily Swanson’s. The Michigan native earned a psychology degree from Albion College in 2007. “I thought I was going into clinical psychology,” she said. Swanson started applying to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology but something didn’t feel right. “I realized the field wasn’t going to be a great fit for me,” she said.

The then-22-year-old Swanson decided to enter the workforce. “I wanted to spend some time thinking and researching to see if there was another field that would allow me to work more directly with patients,” she said. Swanson took a human resources job at an automotive engineering firm outside Detroit. “I started off in sort of an intern role but quickly got hired on as permanent staff,” she said.

Swanson got married shortly after graduating from Albion. Her husband was a teacher. Together, the newlyweds built a life together. In the meantime, Swanson continued exploring her options and eventually decided to pursue medicine. “I thought ‘Great, I’ll take pre-med classes at night and go to work during the day,’” she said.

Michigan — and especially Detroit — were hit hard by the financial collapse. Swanson’s company started letting people go. She would remain but took a significant pay cut. Swanson’s husband struggled to find a long-term teaching position. “I was the bread winner,” said Swanson. “My job kept us above water and made it so we could have health insurance, so I felt compelled to forget about med school for a while.”

"You don't find this level of access at other universities," Emily Swanson.This tenuous existence lasted until 2014. Swanson’s husband attended a conference on disability education. There he met a representative from Washington State’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. “They recruited him out here,” said Swanson. “Six months later we drove out sight unseen with two cars full of stuff and no place to live.”

The couple settled in Olympia. Not long after, Swanson restarted her long delayed pursuit of medical school. “I looked around for schools that would accept me as a post-baccalaureate student,” she said. A post-baccalaureate student, familiarly known as a “fifth-year,” is one who has already earned an undergraduate degree.  In her case, Swanson enrolled at UW Tacoma to complete requirements for medical school. “I needed to take a year of general chemistry and a year of organic chemistry along with physics, biology and biochemistry,” she said.

Swanson spent much of that first year on campus just attending classes and studying. “I started to regret that a little bit,” she said. “I wasn’t taking advantage of opportunities to connect with the UW Tacoma community outside of the classroom.”

Swanson changed her relationship to the university. She became a collaborative learning facilitator for general chemistry students. “It’s akin to a teaching assistant,” she said.  “It’s a small group environment where students can get a little more practice with the material.  About a year later, in the spring of 2018, Swanson added the title of tutor with the Teaching and Learning Center to her resume.

Around the same time Swanson enrolled in biochemistry courses with Associate Professor John Finke. “I like science, but every science student connects to different aspects of the discipline,” said Swanson. “I immediately connected to the material, to seeing how all of these chemical processes are so interconnected and intertwined and necessary for life.”

Swanson found an outlet for her energy. “Other students were talking about taking Dr. Finke’s summer research lab and I really wanted to do something like that,” said Swanson. Finke and Swanson got to talking about the lab during the former’s office hours. “I told him I wished I could have done something like this but I was nearly done with my coursework and couldn’t afford to enroll,” said Swanson. “Dr. Finke looked at me and said ‘what’s stopping you?’” Finke offered Swanson the chance to work in the lab as a volunteer. “The faculty at this institution are exceptionally generous,” said Swanson.  “If you put yourself out there they will go out of their way to make opportunities happen.”

Swanson took her last class at UW Tacoma in the spring of 2018 but she kept working in the lab. “I love it,” she said. “There’s something about having your own little experiment, about seeing how something you do at the beginning of a procedure affects something downstream.” Swanson’s time in the lab has proved fruitful. She’s presented her findings on what is known as the blood-brain barrier at two conferences including The Protein Society’s Annual Symposium in Seattle. “Dr. Finke submitted my abstract and I was one of five students chosen to give a 15-minute presentation to a group of professional scientists,” she said. “I didn’t realize just how big of a deal this was until Dr. Finke told me.”

Swanson’s medical school journey started more than 10 years ago and it’s about to enter the next phase. “I’ve applied to 39 schools across the country,” she said. Swanson isn’t sure what specialty she’ll choose, but experience has taught her things have a way of working out.  In any case, Swanson’s experience at UW Tacoma has given her the knowledge and experience necessary to turn her dream into reality.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / July 31, 2019
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or