Newsletter Article

Kay Chai: The Journey of a Multi-Dimensional Learner

Photo: Kay Chai
Photo: Kay Chai

What I take away from my time here is that psychology, if not all sciences, cannot be separated from interpretive work.  I have to be aware of what my assumptions are when I interpret research findings in a certain way.

     Kay YuYuan Chai (BS in Psychology, 2014)


Arriving at UW as a freshman from her hometown of Kuching, Malaysia, Kay Chai brought with her a few assumptions about psychology that were about to be upended.  "I have to admit that I explored psychology when I was a freshman because I had watched too many movies like The Silence of the Lambs, and was fascinated with criminology," Kay recalls.  "Imagine the shock I had when in my PSYCH 101 class Dr. Kevin King presented psychology as a rigorous empirical science that had none of thoses dramatic criminal profiling or mind-reading stunts."  Undeterred by the clash between her initial expectations and reality, Kay Chai pressed on.  In fact, she jumped right in.

A true student of the discipline, Kay notes that she has enjoyed every psychology class she has taken, regardless of their apparent relevence to her eventual career goal, which is to become a practicing clinical psychologist.  From the "infectious enthusiasm, captivating teaching styles, and kindness to students" exhibited by Drs. Laura Little and Ann Voorhies that led her to fall in love with both statistics and neuroscience, to the "mind-blowing experience" of learning about the true nature of color in Dr. Steve Buck's Sensory and Perceptual Processes class, Kay is the quintessential scholar and liberal learner.  She urges students to look beyond their primary field of study to have fun exploring the broad range of courses offered at UW.  "The things you learn will come in handy at the most unexpected moments," says Kay, recalling a recent graduate school interview when she "had so much fun chatting with a professor about Kantian concepts of space and causation--something I would never have known about had I not ventured beyond my major."

No stranger to navigating a wide range of perspectives, Kay arrived at UW from a country with a rich ethnic diversity where multilingualism and the blending of a multiplicity of backgrounds is the norm.  She credits her upbringing in Malaysia with helping her to cultivate a cross-cultural sensitivity from early on.  Kay brought this sensitivity to bear in her work as a peer TA which gave her the opportunity to work with other international students and to use her experience as a basis for showing empathy for the unique challenges that they face. Dr. Laura Little, with whom Kay worked as a peer TA for her statistics courses, notes that Kay "set a new bar" for undergraduate TAs.  "Her intellect, her easy-going manner, her dependability, and love of helping others made Kay an absolute delight to work with," says Dr. Little. 

In addition to her experiences as a peer TA for a number of classes, Kay is also a member of the Psychology Honors Program.  Honors students commit to a rigorous two-year intensive research experience.  Kay worked with Drs. Marsha Linehan and Marivi Navarro at the Behavioral Research and Therapy Clinics.  There, she undertook the ambitious task of conducting a randomized controlled trial to investigate whether a brief mindfulness intervention could be helpful for college students.  "To be honest," says Kay, "there were countless times when I felt like dropping the project, but I persevered, and have acquired new skills and frames of mind that will benefit me for life."

When not busy in the classroom or the research lab, Kay somehow finds time to volunteer with the King County Crisis Clinic where the experience has affirmed her passion for connecting with and helping people in emotional distress, to work as Compost Crew coordinator at the UW Student Farm which she finds to be very healing and grounding... and, to play the fiddle.  A self-proclaimed "lover of communal events and folk traditions," Kay notes that "by far the best experience in the US has been engaging in the Old Time music circle here in the Pacific Northwest." 

Kay is now poised to leave the Pacific Northwest this fall to begin a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology at Dusquesne University, in Pittsburgh.  Her long-term career goal is to be a mental health counselor working from an existential therapeutic approach, primarily with hospice patients and depressed elderly adults - and, to teach college level psychology classes for the sheer joy of teaching.