Junior chemistry major is working on solving HIV
Robust STEM programs and the ability to study and conduct research in biochemistry at a national research university piqued Linh Dan Nguyen's interest in UMass Dartmouth. Three years later, she's on the verge of solving the structure to one of mankind's most elusive viruses—HIV-1.
"It's such an unreal feeling, and so crazy to be working on something so impactful at this age," said Nguyen. "If everything goes according to plan, we may only be a couple steps away from solving the structure of HIV and applying this research towards drug discovery to develop therapeutics to eradicate the virus and stop the spread of HIV."
Unlike some viral infections, where the body can naturally clear the virus and develop immunity, HIV is particularly difficult to understand and treat because it tends to completely evade the immune system, as it can override every single defense mechanism in the immune system, weakening the body's ability to fight it. HIV-1 proteins use a lot of mechanisms to mediate HIV-1 replication, so even if one mechanism is knocked down, another one will rise and continue replication.
This summer, Associate Professor Xiaofei Jia and his laboratory were awarded two NIH-funded R01 grants to both "Elucidate the Structural Bases of HIV-1-Induced CD4 Degradation," and "Develop Cyclopeptide Nef Inhibitors to Facilitate HIV-1 Eradication."
"We're studying how HIV-1 can continuously replicate in the human body and are currently working on solving how its different proteins bind to each other so we can mediate the replication," said Nguyen. "If we can solve the structure, pharmacologists can figure out how to break the structure apart and terminate the replication, hopefully eradicating the disease."
Undergraduate Research at UMassD
In a laboratory with 4 PhD students and 2 master's students in biochemistry and bioengineering, Nguyen is gaining invaluable experience and a network of future scientists, while stamping her name on something with groundbreaking potential.
How did you get involved in this project?
"I searched the chemistry faculty page and explored the ongoing research topics each professor was working on. I knew I wanted to conduct research in a lab, and was really interested in viruses and how they move. When I saw Professor Jia was working on research to solve and eradicate HIV-1, I knew this was the lab I wanted to work in."
How valuable is the time spent with Dr. Jia
"Super valuable. He's my faculty advisor, so I meet with him at least once a week. As an undergraduate, I feel very lucky to be as close as I am to the primary investigator on such an impactful project, and to get so much exposure to different laboratory techniques. I don't know that I would have had these opportunities at a larger university."
What do you learn from graduate students?
"They've been so helpful teaching me different techniques and ways to troubleshoot problems that inevitably arise. They have a lot more lab experience than I do, so it's so valuable to pick their brains on how they've done things in the past. Learning how to use, and troubleshoot, an AKTA protein purification system is an immensely useful skill before I enter the biochemistry research industry in the future."
A high school junior when the healthcare industry and biochemistry research took center stage during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nguyen wanted to help make a difference in healthcare and medicine. She initially leaned towards nursing to be on the front lines, but realized her passion, and the area she could make the greatest impact in, was biochemistry research.
How did you decide to study biochemistry?
"I took AP biology and AP chemistry in high school and really enjoyed both. Specifically, I liked applying chemistry equations where they related to biology—how it affects cells of our organs, tissues, and overall—us as humans. Being able to combine both fields in biochemistry is perfect for me."
Why should someone study biochemistry? What's exciting about the field?
"Biochemistry is the study of how science affects humans, and it's exciting because you can never know what to expect. There are also so many applications in biochem, as there are always new viruses growing (i.e. COVID-19). Biochemistry figures out the unknown."
What potential do biochemists have to change the world?
"Biochemists have incredible potential to change the world. We discover new viruses and come up with novel treatments for new and existing diseases."
4+1 master's in chemistry
Nguyen is also succeeding in the classroom. With a 3.8 GPA, she has her sights set on accelerating her graduate studies in the 4+1 master's in chemistry program. The BS/MS fast-track enables qualified students to complete both BS and MS degrees in chemistry or biochemistry in 5 rather than 6 years, taking classes in the senior year that "double-count" towards both degrees.
Why are you interested in a master's in chemistry?
"The graduate curriculum involves a lot more research, which is what I enjoy most about academia. I'm hoping I can use the alotted time to give more hours to this project and this lab. We're so unsure where this project will go, but I want to be here for it."
This isn't the first grant-funded research project Nguyen has worked on at UMass Dartmouth. Before she even started her first year, the New Bedford native joined Associate Professor of Bioengineering Tracie Ferreira's lab in an apprenticeship sponsored by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.
What brought you to UMass Dartmouth?
"Between that experience and connections I had with other students that went to UMassD, I knew this was a university renowned for robust science programs, and that I'd be able to do things I probably couldn't at other universities, like getting involved in a lab as big as Dr. Jia's as a sophomore in college."
What advice would you give a first-year student considering research?
"Find a professor in your major/department/college who's researching something you're interested in and ask to connect with them. You can filter and search professors in the campus directory and see their research projects and interests if they conduct research."
How do you know UMassD was the right choice for you?
"I knew UMassD was the right choice because of its location and convenience. I enjoy both the chaos of the city and the peace of the suburbs. Its location in suburban Dartmouth and close proximity to big cities allows me to experience both of these whenever I crave it."
What do you hope to be doing after you graduate?
"I want to get out of academia for a little bit and work in the biochemistry research industry for a couple years before circling back to do doctorate-level study."
Do you have any advice for other women interested in studying STEM?
"Don't be intimidated by the unknown! It's better to take initiative in an exciting field you're interested in than pursue a safe option and not feel fulfilled doing so."
- Professor: Dr. Brian Blanchette
- Class: Bio 234: Cell Biology
- Mentor: Dr. Tracie Ferreira
- Spot to eat: Arnie's Subs
- Place to study: Library 3rd floor
- Hangout spot: Campus Center or Library 1st floor
- Memory: Times with my friend group
- Event: Orientation
- Book: "Everything, Everything" and "The Sun is Also a Star"