A world of opportunities
While working at a leprosy clinic in Karigiri, India, as part of St. Olaf College’s Biology in South India program, Hunter Lin ’16 was struck by the suffering he saw.
“I saw how awful these patients felt, how sad they were, and I thought to myself, ‘Is there no way that we can change this?'” says Lin, a biology major with a biomedical studies concentration.
Knowing that early detection of the disease would prevent the long-term disabilities associated with leprosy, Lin set out to develop a simple diagnostic tool.
Along with fellow St. Olaf student Leah Plasek ’16, Lin founded atPoint. The company is developing the PhorEX1, an immunologic multiplex system that utilizes a vast array of biotechnologies for toxicology, infectious disease, and drug testing. Put simply, the device aims to diagnose patients more efficiently using a blood-based test — and, Lin hopes, “to reimagine diagnostics.”
The business venture was a finalist in this year’s Ole Cup, the annual student entrepreneurial competition sponsored by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career.
It also provided Lin with ample business and biotech experience that he’ll use as he heads to Johns Hopkins University this fall to pursue a postgraduate degree through the School of Nursing. Johns Hopkins has granted Lin access to the labs and tools he’ll need to continue advancing atPoint.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be part of an amazing community of doctors, nurses, and faculty at Johns Hopkins that focuses on providing the highest level of health care to their patients,” Lin says.
The road to St. Olaf
Lin’s success at St. Olaf is remarkable by any standards — but especially so considering the incredible obstacles he’s overcome.
Born in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory situated just off the coast of the Philippines, Lin grew up in Fujian, China. By the age of 11, he was working two jobs: one on a tennis shoe factory assembly line and the other installing locks in bank vaults.
His mother, seeking a better life for her children, sent Lin and his sister to live with a family member in California. When that living situation deteriorated, the siblings found themselves homeless.
Despite these challenges, Lin continued to excel academically, and he eventually graduated from high school in the top 5 percent of students in California. He struggled, though, with the college application process — until Jessica Javelet, a volunteer at the homeless center for teens at which Lin was staying, connected Lin with her family. They took him in, and his new foster father, Jeff Javelet, connected Lin with his longtime friend and St. Olaf Regent John Grotting ’71.
The support that Grotting provided was pivotal. He helped Lin arrange a visit to St. Olaf, where an in-person admissions interview enabled him to showcase his strengths. And Lin was instantly taken with the campus and people.
“I fell in love with the campus the moment I saw it,” he says. “I just knew in my mind that I was home.”
Calling St. Olaf home
With the door to college finally opened, Lin was determined to make the most out of every opportunity possible.
And in four short years, he did.
As part of Associate Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp’s research team, he constructed a minimalistic electromyography (EMG) device that records the electrical activity of muscles to detect abnormalities.
“We are able to produce our devices at a cost of $5, while a conventional device can cost upwards of $50,000,” Lin says.
The team hopes to provide affordable access to electromyography for researchers and clinicians who lack the funds for this vital piece of diagnostic equipment. It could have a significant impact for patients like those Lin met at the clinic in Karigiri, given that monitoring muscle activity is a critical part of caring for patients with leprosy.
Lin conducted this research as part of the St. Olaf TRIO McNair Scholars program. McNair is a graduate school preparatory program funded by the U.S. Department of Education and sponsored by St. Olaf since 2007. The program provides low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students with research opportunities, summer research funding, and graduate school support and preparation.
“McNair was critical in my time at St. Olaf because it gave me the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research with a faculty member, provided me with resources for applying to graduate school, and guided me through the application process,” Lin says.
A presidential thank-you
In addition to McNair, Lin was also heavily involved in the TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) program at St. Olaf. Having benefitted early on from the support the program provides first-generation college students as they navigate life on the Hill, Lin devoted time during his junior and senior years to providing similar assistance to younger SSS students.
“The TRIO programs were important because they provided me with resources that otherwise wouldn’t be available to me due to my background, and I became part of a caring community,” Lin says. “TRIO gave me the fighting chance to succeed in college.”
Lin capped his connection to the program by constructing a case study to analyze the effectiveness of federal intervention programs such as TRIO. The case study was seen by many — including President Barack Obama, who sent Lin a letter congratulating and thanking him for his efforts.
Despite all that life has thrown at him, Lin says he’s leaving St. Olaf equipped with the mindset and skills that ensure there are no bounds to what he can achieve.
“My path has not been an easy one,” he says. “However, I know that my journey has made me who I am, and I am glad that I found hope, wisdom, and love from everyone at St. Olaf to open the door.”