Michael Liu is a shining example of Loyola Marymount University’s Ignatian ethos. In fact, he is the 2022 recipient of the prestigious Ignatian Award for excellence in service, leadership, and academic achievement. Liu, a 2022 graduate, says he feels amply prepared to embark on the next leg of his educational journey which includes applying to medical school in 2023. He is planning on a career as a physician.
“Michael is such a star in so many ways and touches multiple parts of the university, as well as embodies the Ignatian ethos of faith, justice, and service,” said Jennifer Abe, LMU professor of psychological science, who voluntarily became a research mentor to Liu when he took the initiative to seek her out for her expertise.
The interdisciplinary collaboration culminated in Liu being honored with a first-place win by the Los Angeles County Psychological Association in fall 2022 for his research titled “Exploring Resilience in College Students.” Through LMU’s six-week Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and for nearly a year after, Liu and Professor Abe explored resilience in college students, comparing differences in levels of resilience and depression between first-generation and non-first-generation LMU students. “I wanted to have a better understanding of the challenges and burdens other students face that I might take for granted,” said Liu. “For me, the question has always been ‘which college will I attend?’ It has never been ‘will I be able to go to college?’ This is what made me want to pursue this research project.”
It was the COVID-19 pandemic that served as a catalyst for his award-winning research. During the lockdown in 2020, Liu was unable to work on in-person biochemistry research in the lab, so he was looking for another way to gain research experience during that time. Committed to service and helping others, especially underserved populations, Liu was curious about mental health issues and thought this might be an interesting area to research from home. But how does a student pursuing a biology major and biochemistry minor go about conducting psychosocial research with little experience in psychology? Liu’s solution was to look for a mentor within the LMU psychology faculty that might be willing to collaborate.
Liu found Abe’s faculty profile online and felt “her mission and research interests” matched his own, so he contacted her and pitched his research idea. Abe’s research broadly addresses topics related to mental health service delivery for ethnically diverse populations, including disparities, spirituality, cultural humility, and community-defined evidence practices. “I’m trained in Asian American mental health issues and my research is focused on psychiatric epidemiology,” said Abe. “I have looked at the broader national patterns of help-seeking and answering the question ‘from whom do people seek services?’ I’ve looked at that specifically among Asian Americans in my earlier research. I’m doing a lot of different things now, but that is probably why Michael sought me out.”
Liu’s research found that first-generation college students, especially those receiving additional support through the First To Go Program, did not report significantly higher levels of depression or lower levels resilience than non-first generation students. “I found the results interesting, and the information ignited hope that while first-generation students do experience a lot of challenges, with the right support, mentorship, and opportunity, they can perform at the same level as non-first-generation students,” he said. “It really speaks to the volume of their resilience and their determination. It gives me increased respect and admiration for that group.”
Liu is most grateful for his experiences at LMU and the extraordinary mentorship cultivated with Professor Abe. “When I started working with Professor Abe, she really helped me understand the true importance of research,” he said. “In addition to learning the actual research process and applying it to real-world situations, she emphasized the reason we do research is always to give back to the community. It’s about the importance of understanding underserved communities, not just to have data and to be published. But to really understand what challenges underserved communities are facing so we can acquire knowledge, increase our empathy, and understand how to better serve populations in need.”
Following the completion of his psychology research project, Liu wanted to add more clinical research experience to his portfolio, so he applied for and was awarded a one-year research trainee position at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland. As a research assistant, one of the protocols Liu is currently involved in is investigating the long-term effects of COVID-19 on mental health.
“I love that it was the circuitous route that led Michael to a place of such incredible opportunity that he is in now,” said Abe. “I feel that Michael and I found each other. We don’t always know where we are going to find our people and this type of opportunity may come in forms you don’t expect or recognize immediately. Neither of us had any idea this research project would turn into what it did. With his motivation, natural curiosity, humility, and openness to learn, he was able to receive and take that knowledge and run far with it. I can’t wait to see what Michael does next!”