As Thien Nguyen graduates from UCLA this week, the first-generation transfer student is determined to help unravel how patients with chronic liver diseases develop liver cancer. She has seen far too many people — including in her family and neighborhood — suffering from the cancer at late stages.
“That’s because there is a high rate of hepatitis viral infection in Vietnam, and many just don't have access to be diagnosed and monitored for chronic conditions, which leads to liver cancer,” said Nguyen, who was 18 when her family moved to Orange County from Vietnam. “Liver cancer does not have obvious symptoms until late stage and the treatment is not effective, with a patient response rate below 20%.”
She enrolled as a student at Orange Coast College, where she not only had to learn English but also how the U.S. educational system works. Nguyen knew she wanted to head to a four-year university next, but hardship struck during her first year in America.
“My mom was diagnosed with a serious illness, and my family had just moved to the States, so I needed to work to help support my family,” she said. “It would have been easy to drop out. I saw other ESL students doing that.”
But Nguyen persisted and in her second year, an opportunity arose to work as a clinical research coordinator at a clinic for gastrointestinal diseases. She observed that treatments caused severe side effects in one group of minority patients, who were therefore unable to get the best treatment for their disease.
With funding from a Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship, Nguyen transferred to UCLA as a junior and majored in molecular, cell and developmental biology. She won a Goldwater Scholarship to conduct a research project with Dr. Joseph Crompton, an assistant professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, that focused on identifying the causes of autoimmune reactions to immunotherapy treatments.
After graduation, Nguyen will join a research project at Harvard Medical School to explore carcinogenesis in hepatitis B patients with or without HIV co-infection. Then she’ll go to Cambridge University in England for a master’s program in oncology, funded by the Cooke International Award, to research the causes of dysfunction in immune cells in the liver that lead to liver damage.
She plans to eventually pursue a M.D.–Ph.D. to gain expertise in liver pathophysiology, as well as skills she hopes will allow her to bridge the gap between scientific discovery and treatment development for patients with the hepatitis B virus and liver cancer.
Nguyen has been giving back to the transfer student community and underrepresented students who are also interested in research. Though TransferMed at UCLA, she helps other pre-med transfer students identify and apply for external internship opportunities.
As director of outreach and mentorship for the Undergraduate Journal Club at UCLA, Nguyen gives presentations to underrepresented students to help them find research opportunities, discuss science, learn from peers and build skills needed for graduate education.
“I remember how hard it is to navigate how the educational system works, especially for immigrant and first-generation students like me,” she said. “We don’t know exactly what resources we can have — and how we can utilize these resources effectively.”
And, Nguyen doesn’t forget where she got her start. She goes back to Orange Coast College to help students learn more about UCLA and the transfer process — and finds inspiration there.
“Community college students are indeed a strong and tough community, they just need a bit of guidance,” she said, “Each student has different struggles and seeing how hard they strive, despite their situations, reminds me of the strength that I have as a community college student. This motivates me to persist with my goals, regardless of what happens.”