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Finding his voice

First-generation college student Eric Trac makes the most of MIT — whether through medical research or community service.
'I think about this rare opportunity I have, to come to MIT to study, and I think I should cherish it and make the most of it,' Eric Trac says.
'I think about this rare opportunity I have, to come to MIT to study, and I think I should cherish it and make the most of it,' Eric Trac says.
Photo: Allegra Boverman
Photo: Allegra Boverman

Eric Trac’s senior year at MIT has been a busy one. He’s finishing his coursework in chemical engineering, applying to medical school, and researching a gel that can help heal scarred vocal cords. He’s also mentoring youth debaters in Boston, planning a community service trip to his hometown of San Francisco, and setting up a mentoring program for premedical students. And when he gets the chance, he calls home to talk to his mother.

A rough start

Ten years ago, Trac didn’t speak much in school. He didn’t understand much, either: The son of Vietnamese refugees, Trac didn’t speak English at home and struggled through elementary school, bringing home standardized test marks that were far below average.

Neither of Trac’s parents had attended college; his mother had abandoned her dreams of becoming a pharmacist to flee Vietnam’s Communist regime in 1979. “My mother was forced to work countless hours at a series of minimum-wage jobs in order to support my family,” Trac recounted in an essay, “Teardrops Don’t Always Drip Down,” that was awarded an Isabelle de Courtivron Prize last year by MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

One night when Trac was 10, his mother called him into the kitchen, where she sat holding his poor test results. That night changed his life, Trac says: “At 10 years old, I realized that if I wanted to avoid my mother’s fate — the fate of working multiple jobs to feed her family and having almost no control over her own life or the lives of those she loved — I would have to work hard. I took the only path in front of me, which was to open my books and start reading.”

For the next two years, Trac and his mother routinely stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. as she helped him through his homework and read books to him in English, translating into Vietnamese intermittently. By high school, the hard work had paid off. “The material surpassed my mother’s knowledge, but I retained my work ethic and my attitude toward academics,” Trac says.

Trac hadn’t thought much about college — until joining his high school debate club. “I think that was the first time that I sat down and started writing my own arguments, articulating my own thoughts, in front of others,” Trac reflects. “I got to see that I have potential of my own.”

“I resolved to work hard in high school to make college financially viable through scholarships and financial aid,” Trac says. “Ultimately, I secured a nearly free, world-class education at MIT.”

MIT and medicine

Trac’s enjoyment of his high-school chemistry and math classes led him to major in chemical engineering at the Institute. He became interested in medicine during his sophomore year, and decided to follow a premedical track.

“Medicine gives me a unique opportunity to see the impact of my work, and the work of science, on nearly a daily basis,” Trac says.

He joined a research project dually affiliated with the laboratory of Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, and the Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation at Massachusetts General Hospital. The team is working on drug delivery for an injectable hydrogel developed to restore the flexibility of scarred vocal cords.

“People who use their voices very often, such as singers or lecturers, may scar and stiffen their vocal folds over time,” Trac explains. “This hydrogel could restore the flexibility of the vocal folds, thereby restoring these individuals’ voices.”

Trac is now working to incorporate an anti-inflammatory drug called dexamethasone into the hydrogel. “Ideally, once the hydrogel is injected into the vocal cords, dexamethasone would slowly release over an extended period of time,” he says.

Giving back

Over the last year, Trac has worked with MIT’s Prehealth Advising office and the local chapter of the American Medical Student Association to implement a mentoring program connecting premedical students with alumni who have gone on to medical school all over the country. By its second semester, last fall, the program had attracted some 70 alumni mentors and more than 100 MIT undergraduates. “The solution just required talking to people, meeting people, getting people together to build a program,” Trac says.

During his time at MIT, Trac has volunteered at a local high school and at a school in St. Louis for students with severe learning and behavioral problems. A few times a month, he goes on an outing with his “Best Buddy,” an individual with an intellectual disability. “I thought it was a good way to improve someone’s life on a one-to-one basis,” he says.

Trac is also a mentor in the Boston Debate League, which helps disadvantaged youths recognize their own potential through debate — a message that resonates with his own story.

Though Trac’s early years were difficult, the obstacles he’s overcome have given him perspective and motivation, he says. “Occasionally, I think about this rare opportunity I have, to come to MIT to study, and I think I should cherish it and make the most of it,” Trac says.

Another of his inspirations is closer to his heart: “My mother sacrificed a lot for me to do the things I’m currently doing, to actually attend college,” Trac says. “I think that I can repay her sacrifices by giving the things I do my very best.”

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