ATLAS Stories: Chuwen Zhong

By Emma Spring

Born in one corner of China, Chuwen Zhong found herself uprooted and in a constant shuffle between cities, sparked by the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Amidst the backdrop of China’s one-child policy, Zhong found herself in the solitude of constant relocation. While her mother, a dedicated pediatrician, tended to her patients’ well-being, Zhong would spend her holidays moving back and forth between cities, seeking solace in the embrace of her parents’ love. Yet, despite these tender moments, she couldn’t help but feel a tinge of insecurity as a young girl, yearning for a sense of belonging that eluded her grasp.

“I don’t have a sense of belongingness,” said Zhong. “I won’t say I belong anywhere. [I’m a] little bit insecure.”

As she grew older, her perceptive nature unraveled the threads of emotion in those around her. The fragility of her parents’ relationship, the raw emotions of her mother’s struggles—these pieces of her family imprinted deeply upon her heart. 

Zhong became acutely sensitive, detecting when friends were burdened by stress or concealing hidden sorrow, even when their lips remained sealed.

“[My parents] had a bad relationship and my mom’s emotions became not that stable, [so I] became really sensitive to the environment,” said Zhong. “That’s part of my personality. I’m just really sensitive to human emotion.”

Her affinity for exploring the human psyche led her to the embrace of books, seeking refuge in the sanctuary within the library stacks on psychology and mental health. 

Zhong’s interest in the inner workings of the brain took a pause when, at the age of 14, a medical issue necessitated knee surgery. Zhong’s doctor’s skillful hands saved her, illuminating her path with a newfound appreciation for life’s fragility and a desire to attend medical school. Zhong ended up working in the neurology and cardiovascular department, but her lingering interests in mental health loomed. 

“I enjoyed learn[ing] the medical knowledge like the physiology, but when I [went] to the first internship when you [interact] with the patient, [I] realize[d] I’m so sensitive to emotion [that] when I was in the in the in hospital, I was just so sad,” said Zhong. “I felt the pain and the sorrow from the patients and their family members. I realize[d] maybe I can survive in the end, but felt like there must [be] another way to spend my life.” 

Zhong’s life journey took her across the ocean to Washington University in St. Louis. There, she tested the waters of academia, rediscovering the threads of her passion for mental health research from her bookworm library days. Her longing for understanding and compassion, born from her own experiences, now propelled her forward to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Her focus on mental health in older adults became the canvas upon which she found a fascination with suicide research, seeking to shed light on the darkness that haunts so many.

Zhong’s heart still flutters with uncertainty as her path remains undefined. No specific city or place has tugged at her soul, other than the utmost certainty that academics is where her heart is meant to be.

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