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  • Lauren Green

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Dr Kelly Nguyen

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

“I had a very good chemistry teacher who really got me hooked into science as a career”

Dr Kelly Nguyen is a structural biologist who is investigating a region at the end of chromosomes called telomeres and their implications in cancer and ageing. Her work specifically aims to determine the structure of an enzyme called telomerase, which extends telomeres, protecting the chromosome from degradation. This prevents the cell from aging and in turn prevents cancer cell mortality.

“A lot of drug companies are interested in finding inhibitors for this molecule, but the problem is that we don’t know what it looks like,” Nguyen explained. Using cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM), an imaging technique which flash-freezes samples to extremely low temperatures before electron beams are fired, Nguyen’s team is reconstructing the three-dimensional shape of telomerase to help develop therapeutic drugs for cancer treatment.

Growing up in rural Vietnam, science was not on Nguyen’s radar until she was given the opportunity to complete high school in New Zealand. “I had never seen a lab until I went to New Zealand. When I was there, I had a very good chemistry teacher who really got me hooked into science as a career.” Following her newfound passion, Nguyen completed a chemistry undergraduate degree in Australia. Inspired by a talk given there by a professor from Yale, Thomas Steitz, on ribosomal biology, Nguyen made the life-changing decision to switch fields.

For nearly the next two years, Nguyen carried out an honours research laboratory placement in biology. This experience then enabled her to apply to Cambridge for a PhD in a similar field, molecular biology. “I’ve learnt most of what I know about biology from working in the lab and reading textbooks. I still feel that I lack some knowledge in areas that I don’t work with in the lab.”

Reflecting on her education, Nguyen wishes she had been braver, she says, and taken more biology courses, despite the challenges of learning what she calls “big words in biology” outside her native language.

“Every time I moved country my confidence went back to zero”

Country hopping and switching fields have each brought their own set of hurdles and uncertainties for Nguyen to overcome. “When I moved countries, I had imposter syndrome. You don’t know anyone and you wonder if you’re in the right place. Every time I moved country my confidence went back to zero. There was a lot of self-doubt in the beginning.”

Despite being away from home, Nguyen spoke about her family’s support. “They're really happy about my decision. I think it's hard in some ways, but my family are fully supportive. I wish one day they could come and see what I do in the lab, but it hasn't happened yet. I hope it will happen sometime soon.”

“Am I good enough?”

Having come a long way in her career, Nguyen recently set up her own lab after a mentor encouraged her to take the leap. “I never felt ready for it, but my PhD advisor came to visit me, and he said, ‘You should just go for it.’ I actually benefited a lot from people who believed in me.”

One particular time when Nguyen has been inspired by mentors was during her PhD at Cambridge. “I learnt so much in my PhD: that it’s okay to be fearless; to be ignorant in choosing something that people think is impossible; and to believe in what you do. I’ve been fortunate in such a way that I have these great mentors who I can take the good things from and hopefully implement in my research career.”

As an avid reader of biographies, Nguyen has also been inspired by Michelle Obama. “I can relate to a lot of things Michelle brought up in her book, Becoming. One big question she always had growing up, which I sometimes shared when I moved countries, was: ‘Am I good enough?’ In the end, after all she has achieved, the conclusion is yes, she’s good enough. It's very inspiring for me to see somebody who ended up doing very well with the same kind of insecurities.”

“I have a direction where I want to take projects, but at the same time, personally, I don't think I ever feel ready. But once I'm in it I love what I do, and work hard on learning as I go.”

“Having more examples of scientists from diverse background for junior scientists is needed, so they feel more inspired and encouraged”

With little exposure to science during her childhood in Vietnam, promoting women in science is a topic Nguyen cares strongly about. “I’m thinking of trying to one day go back to my region of Vietnam and start some science outreach to get kids interested.”

“One problem I see often with younger women in science, which I can see in myself a few years ago, is if we feel that we are only fifty percent ready we’re not willing to try, and this is one of the things that sets us back. Usually I talk to younger scientists and I say you should just go for it. They’re scared and always think of the successful scientist as being secure, but they only see the shiny side.”

“Having more examples of scientists from diverse background for junior scientists is needed, so they feel more inspired and encouraged.”

Dr Nguyen was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Rebecca Voorhees. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates who they want to pass their award onto to create a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event later this year. More details to follow.

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