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Q&A with GSBS MID MD/PhD student April Nguyen

April 13, 2022

Photo of April Nguyen

April Nguyen is a fifth year student in the school’s MD/PhD Program and is studying how some bacteria (enterococci ) become resistant to last-resort antibiotics in the Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Program. Nguyen became interested in researching bacteria after seeing the effects that such small organisms can have on not only the human body, but also on a grander scale of human socioeconomic policies as we have seen from COVID-19. In this interview, Nguyen shares why she chose the GSBS and shares some advice for first year students.

 What ignited your passion for science?
“I always thought you had to be able to see something to believe it. So I ended up narrowing on life sciences because I couldn’t find any interest in abstract concepts in physical sciences like gravity or pressure that I couldn’t physically see. Meanwhile, I was able to see cells with a microscope, which felt like unlocking another dimension I didn’t know existed. Eventually, bacteria became my primary organisms of interest after seeing the effects that such small organisms can have on not only the human body, but also on a grander scale of human socioeconomic policies as we have seen from COVID-19.”

Why did you choose the GSBS for your research education?
“I was looking for an MD/PhD program that allowed me to expand my horizons, not just in the scope of research topics, labs, and infrastructure available, but also in the scope of culture, food, events, and people available for me in the big city setting that UTHealth had. I wanted to move to Houston already for personal reasons, but it was really the feel of the students of the program that sealed the deal for me over other MD/PhD programs in this area.”

What attracted you to the MD/PhD program?
“Initially, I was attracted to MD/PhD programs because the idea of understanding all facets of human disease and therapy (from the basic science to the clinical aspects) appealed to me. I had this dream of bridging the gap between basic science and medicine after seeing how differently one topic was presented from a research scientist versus a physician when I was in undergraduate. If I dipped my toes into both sides, perhaps I could see the holes in education, research, or practice and improve communication and progress amongst all facets of science.”

How did you choose a lab or advisor?
“The MD/PhD program students start their rotations in the summer before starting medical school so I had to choose a rotation right after moving here. I didn’t really understand how to look around at labs or who was doing what and where they were doing it at, leading to a couple short and unproductive rotations at the beginning. Eventually, the director of the MD/PhD program pointed me in Dr. [Cesar] Arias’ direction after understanding that my interests were in infectious diseases, and she knew Dr. Arias’ was an up and coming infectious diseases physician-scientist that would be best to help me with my career trajectory. I contacted him for a rotation, and the rest is history.”

What is your research project and how did you choose itt?
“My project focuses on trying to determine how some bacteria (enterococci) become resistant to last-resort antibiotics like daptomycin. In this case, the enterococci are able to rearrange their cell membrane to trap daptomycin away from its targets, allowing the bacteria to live to continue infecting us.”

What goals do you have for your career?
“My long-term career goal is to establish myself as an academic physician-scientist specializing in infectious diseases, with a particular focus on combating antimicrobial resistance.”

What do you want to do after you graduate?
“I’ll be going back to medical school after finishing my dissertation work. With any luck, I’ll have time for a short vacation in between!”

What has been your biggest success?
“Honestly, I have struggled with self-confidence in my work for years now. So I thought that I’d never be able to pass my candidacy exam because that would be the first time a non-biased panel would be able to evaluate my knowledge in detail, and they would be able to see right through me. However, I unconditionally passed, and that was something I still consider my biggest success. I still keep the cork from the celebration with me on my bench to remind myself each day that I can succeed even when I thought I couldn’t.”

What has been your biggest failure and how did you overcome it?
“There has been so many times where I’ve let my personal life/issues interfere with my professional life, and this kind of balance is still a skill I’m working on. One instance where my time management led to long lasting impacts was when studying for the first board exam for medical school prior to starting my PhD. I couldn’t compartmentalize some personal family issues happening during study time and also was too prideful to reschedule my exam to a later date to give me more time to prepare after the issue passed, leading to an unexpected score. In the future, when studying for my candidacy exam, I learned from that experience to better focus myself and schedule adequate study time prior to my exam, which I then did better than I ever imagined!”

What advice would you give to a first year student?
“Don’t give up on your hobbies outside of lab.Try new hobbies in your free time. Sometimes it’s easy to get stuck in the minutia of your research or the emotional tidal wave that comes when things don’t work out the way you expect. Forcing yourself to keep up with something that is completely non-work related can help give your mind a hard reset from work and allow you to come back to your work later with a fresh attitude.”

What’s something you like to do when you are not working in the lab?
“My main hobbies include coming up with new meals to cook at home (my husband used to be a chef so believe me cooking is a whole hobby and not just a necessity) We also have a 400+ bottle collection of whiskey and rum, and we love to educate friends with tastings in our free time. Additionally, my guilty pleasures include reading tons of fanfiction and also watching anime.”



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