A win-win partnership for science

Undergraduate students bring eager minds to Center labs and gain high-caliber research experience
 Minh-An Nguyen, left, with Dr. Catherine Blish
Undergraduate student Minh-An Nguyen, left, has been working with Dr. Catherine Blish, her Human Biology Division mentor, on better understanding the immune system for the development of an effective HIV vaccine. Blish considers Nguyen "incredibly talented at the bench." Photo by Stephanie Cartier

With a hesitant smile, Minh-An Nguyen looked up from the lab bench, pipette in hand, hovering in mid-air. "Are you sure you want to interview me?" she said. "I haven't really done anything special."

Her colleagues in Dr. Julie Overbaugh's lab couldn't disagree more. Nguyen, an affable and extremely humble young woman, is one of the handful of undergraduates working on research projects in Center labs. Although they make up a relatively small population, the undergraduates are far from ordinary.

Nguyen has quietly racked up more awards in the past few years than many do in a lifetime; she is a Howard Hughes fellow and has earned Mary Gates leadership and research awards. She is a member of the biology honor society Tri-Beta and the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa. Recently, she received a call from University of Washington President Mark Emmert to inform her that she was the recipient of the UW Junior Medal, awarded to the senior with the highest academic standing.

Her determination is deeply rooted in compassion. Nguyen, moved by a close friend who has lived with HIV for 20 years, took a college class about the global issues surrounding HIV and AIDS. She knew she couldn't ignore the issue. "It's non-discriminatory; anyone can have it. Around the world, a lot of people are suffering," Nguyen said. As one of the first officers of the Student AIDS Action Network at UW, she works to boost awareness on campus and raise funds for AIDS-related charities. "I took the class, got involved with the club, and then received the Howard Hughes fellowship; it all fit together. So I started looking for labs that were doing HIV research," Nguyen said.

"Minh-An e-mailed me in May 2005 to ask if I would consider having her in the lab," Overbaugh said. "Usually, I make some inquiries to be sure this is a good fit. But once I met her, her potential and ability to work with others was self-evident." Typically, labs ask that students complete a series of courses during their junior year to prove their bench skills before working in a lab. At the time, Nguyen was a sophomore.

"Given that she was highly motivated and had a clear interest in science and HIV research, we decided to take a chance," said Dr. Catherine Blish, an associate in the Human Biology Division and Nguyen's mentor. Nguyen has been helping Blish to better understand immune response to HIV with the ultimate goal of designing a better vaccine. "It's paid off very nicely. Minh-An is just a pleasure in every imaginable way to work with, and she's incredibly talented at the bench," Blish said.

So talented, in fact, that during her first summer, Nguyen wildly outpaced all expectations, doing about 10 times the amount of work Blish expected. "It's just amazing how efficient she's been," Blish said, adding that her productivity is comparable to that of experienced graduate students.

Such is the case with exceptional undergraduate students. Dr. Barry Stoddard coordinates the Center's summer internship program, which attracts outstanding students from all over the world. Some local students, like Nguyen, continue to work throughout the year. Exposing young minds to such high-quality science benefits everyone involved, Stoddard said. "Students learn early on if research is something they want to pursue," he said. "And a lab gets two things out of it. First of all, we get extremely eager people; a lot of them are just ravenous to prove themselves in a lab, and they'll work incredibly hard. You also get the experience of training someone for their very first steps in research — it's very enjoyable."

Furthermore, the National Cancer Institute provides a substantial supplement to the Center's core grant to fund the program, which hires between 30 and 40 students every year. "Basically what they want is for us to continue to participate in developing a pipeline, starting with high-school students and then right on up through undergraduates with the intent of getting people from a wide variety of backgrounds, particularly women and students of color, to consider research tracks," Stoddard said.

Educational outreach

To attract students of diverse backgrounds to the research environment, Dr. Beti Thompson, of the Public Health Sciences Division, works closely with New Mexico State University. About 10 students are selected each year from that school, and there are plenty of benefits to go around. "The program provides students with the experience of working in a lab. The lab, in turn, gets people who are interested in science to help during the summer. Often there are small projects that we're not able to work on intensively during our normal days, so it's really nice to have students come and take the initiative and help us develop some of the ideas we have," Thompson said.

Danielle Miranda, a former intern preparing for graduate school, said her time at the Center played an important role in her future. "After my internship, I became more interested in biomedical sciences than ever before. It gave me firsthand experience and allowed me the opportunity to interact with other Center researchers," Miranda said.

A contribution to science

Nguyen, whose values are firmly aligned with serving the underserved, will graduate this spring. And while she has been feeling some pressure from those in the lab to continue research, she plans to leave the bench and follow her heart, which is calling her to dental school. Nguyen moved to the United States from Oslo, Norway, when she was 9, and grew up in an underprivileged family. She knows firsthand the misery of being underserved. Her mentally disabled aunt lives with agonizing tooth pain, the result of a struggle to find a dentist willing to treat her. That experience led to her involvement as president of Healthcare Alternative Spring Break at UW. The organization is the first of its kind in the country and gives pre-health students an opportunity to work with care providers in rural areas of Washington for a week. It also gave Nguyen some insights to her future. "There's a great need for oral-health providers," she said. "It takes manual dexterity to work with your hands, and it also combines science, patient interaction, and it's constantly evolving. I like the challenge."

She's not alone — just about everyone the undergraduate program attracts is up for a hearty challenge. "I love training students at all levels," said Stoddard. "It's been a rewarding addition to the process of trying to solve a scientific problem and a great contribution to science in general."

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.