By AnneMarie Hunter
Lars Neuenschwander has been a Coug from the day he took his first breath.
A current WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine student, Lars was born on campus at Pullman Memorial Hospital in 1996. Eighteen years later, he returned to attend Washington State University. In 2019, he achieved a double degree in Spanish and Bioengineering and will graduate from the College of Medicine in 2024.
However, a future in the medical profession was not always part of Lars’s plans. In fact, he had to overcome a piercing fear to pursue medicine.
“I wasn’t somebody who grew up with a passion for medicine and didn’t think a medical career was for me,” he said. “In fact, I had a terrible phobia of needles and wondered if I could get past it.”
However, encouraged by his parents who had always set an example for boldly exploring life, Lars kept an open mind about his future.
“My mom was born in Sweden and my dad’s parents were Swiss,” he said. “My parents actually met each other during a typhoon on a ferry from Shanghai to Hong Kong. They traveled the world and taught English in China and Japan. Their experiences, garnered over years of travel and life abroad, inspired me to always be curious and open-minded.”
As he explored career possibilities, Lars was certain about attributes essential to the path he would eventually choose. He was committed to the idea of helping others and making a positive impact every day. He wanted to work with his hands, be challenged, and have opportunities to continually grow.
Though still apprehensive about his inner fears, his goals prompted Lars to consider a medical career and he began volunteering for medical organizations. One of those opportunities, at a hospital in Costa Rica, propelled him into a passion for medicine.
“I distinctly remember seeing a surgeon console a distressed child by holding him, as he prepared for surgery,” Lars recalled. “I watched an anesthesiologist comfort a patient, as he prepared him to have his leg amputated. It was as if those doctors could see through their patients’ eyes and experience their fear and anxiety. Their patients’ struggles were their struggles. Their patients’ success was their success. I came back to the United States knowing there was nothing else I wanted to do.
“Medicine wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, I was afraid. But, it was the work I wanted to do. I chose something I avoided my whole life and ended up falling in love with it.”
Though Lars’s fears had been replaced by a vision of service through healing, there was still another obstacle on his path.
“One of my greatest challenges was learning to become passionate about my own education,” he said. “In high school, I was never exceptionally motivated to study. When I was fortunate enough to get into WSU, I vowed to focus on my education. I surrounded myself with people I knew would push me to work harder. I made education my primary goal and transformed myself into the student I aspired to be.”
Lars’s commitment reaped results. He has excelled in his studies at WSU and been awarded numerous scholarships, including the Elson S. Floyd Medical Student Scholarship and the Medical Education Endowed Scholarship.
“Scholarships from the WSU Foundation have helped me focus on my studies by alleviating the financial burden of undergraduate and graduate education,” Lars said. “They’ve been important financial contributions to my education and my goal is to give back once I become a doctor.”
Lars envisions giving back on many levels, and serving Spanish-speaking communities is fundamental to that aspiration. His internship in Costa Rica, another in Guatemala through the Hearts in Motion program and undergraduate studies in Spain inspired this commitment.
“One day, I hope to work with non-profits and provide medical care to Spanish-speaking communities in Washington and around the world,” he said. “I’ve seen many parallels between the challenges in rural, underserved communities in Washington state and Central America. I believe we could use similar solutions for these challenging medical problems.”
Lars believes medical innovation is key to the discovery of solutions for these critical 21st century healthcare challenges.
“We have a great College of Medicine,” he said. “We’re a newer school and that allows us to be more inventive to transform our vision into reality. There’s such an opportunity for innovation and reimagining better healthcare here. I believe it’s our duty as future doctors to not only diagnose and treat disease, but also develop better treatments.”
As a medical student, Lars has progressed his ideas into action through collaborative pioneering research with faculty and peers.
“Lars is the kind of student who goes the extra mile, no matter what the task is,” said Dr. Georgina Lynch, WSU College of Medicine assistant professor. “He demonstrates diligence and shows great teamwork, knowing that to really impact change requires engaging many others.”
A research assistant in Dr. Lynch’s lab, Lars has worked to help advance Dr. Lynch’s research in earlier detection of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by integrating data from the lab with “out of the box” solutions. Lars’ contribution to Dr. Lynch’s research includes the development of hardware necessary to conduct physical screening of the pupillary light reflex, a measure known to be atypical in ASD.
“Innovative solutions are key to serving communities who may not have access to medical resources available in larger urban areas,” Dr. Lynch said. “Lars shared excitement for moving the needle even just a little, hoping to make an impact addressing health disparities related to ASD diagnosis in rural communities.”
In 2020, Dr. Lynch and Lars co-founded the start-up, Appiture Biotechnologies, Inc. Through funding received from the Jones Milestone Accelerator and Greater Spokane Incorporated, the group is focused on creating a more streamlined and reliable process for early screening and diagnoses of ASD. This process will help children gain access to beneficial resources at an earlier age, which can have a positive impact on their development and translate to improved long-term health.
“It is not uncommon to see Lars attempt multiple tests and fine-tune adjustments to this equipment and make new materials on his own,” Dr. Lynch said. “His goal is to see this technology adopted in clinics throughout the U.S., starting right here in Washington state. Clinical partnerships are key to this success and his aptitude for developing technology, paired with his inquisitive nature, is the perfect combination needed to move his goal forward.”