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Building a Better Pancreas

Commencement speaker Michelle Quizon is searching for the right materials to help build artificial organs that could help make diabetes a thing of the past.

People  |  May 8, 2018  |  By Jason Scavone
Michelle Quizon

Commencement speaker Michelle Quizon is headed to Georgia Tech to pursue her Ph.D. after graduation. (Josh Hawkins / UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

UNLV's commencement ceremonies will be held at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday, May 12. Join us in congratulating our newest alumni in social media with #UNLVGrad. For full ceremony details, visit the commencement website.


Spring commencement speaker Michelle Quizon’s sister is a Type 1 diabetic. Most of us might learn the basics to help a family member through any emergencies that could cause, and let it go at that. Quizon? She’s looking for a cure.

Quizon’s father was in the Navy, meaning the family had to move around. For the 10 years prior to coming to UNLV, Quizon grew up in South Korea. It was hard, she said, as a Filipina in a society that was largely homogeneous.

“With dark curly hair and dark skin I stood out, and not in a good way,” Quizon said. “My abilities and grades were questioned by authorities, so much so I internalized my incompetence. It wasn't until junior high school that my physics teacher told me I should pursue engineering.”

That was the spark she needed. She set off on the engineering path, which led her to UNLV and the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering. What she found here was a diverse campus that allowed her to blossom.

“When you come here, people do not look at you by your race or your ethnicity or any of those superficial predetermined traits you have,” she said. “They look at your character. I've been able to ask for help and not feel as if I'm being judged because I am asking for help. Everyone wants you to succeed, and that's definitely a change."

Of course, that spirit of esprit de corps holds as much for extracurricular activities as it does for academics. She entered competitive powerlifting because a friend helped introduce her to the sport. Not a bad thing to explore when you're doing the kind of research Quizon tackled.

As a sophomore with no research experience, Quizon approached Mohamed Trabia, associate dean for research, graduate studies and computing, about coming aboard on a project. He put her to work on research involving diabetic pressure insoles.

In 2016, she returned to South Korea for a summer to study materials for artificial muscles, and wrote an honors thesis on the same subject. Now, she’ll head straight to Georgia Tech as a Ph.D. candidate to continue her research. Eventually, she hopes to work either in the academy or as a research scientist or engineer for a major diabetes company like Dexcom. She wants to help develop artificial organs, like a pancreas, that could replace damaged ones. 

All because someone once said 'yes.'

"When I first approached Dr. Trabia I had no research experience, but I believe because he sensed my energy and passion. He could tell I would produce good work and be enthusiastic about it," Quizon said. "I don't think I would be able to do that at another institution."