Don Nguyen: Bringing science to life

  • Students

Don Nguyen, from Omaha, Neb., is a junior majoring in microbiology and molecular genetics. He is a College of Natural Science Deans Research Scholar and a University Distinguished Scholar.

Look around. You can’t see them, but they are there. Bacteria . . . there are more of them in your body than your own cells. Trillions inhabit our door knobs, tables, water fountains and food. It is up to us to make sure that we understand these organisms and if they are harmful or not. As microbiology and genetics major, that is exactly what my courses center around. Exactly what my research project focuses on. Exactly my forte.

When I first came to MSU, I enrolled as an astrophysics major, dreaming of becoming an astronaut and exploring space. But, after taking a biology course, I found myself switching from wanting to study the vastness of space to the tininess of microorganisms.

The courses I am currently taking and the ones I will take, honestly excite me—immunology, virology, microbial genetics, pathogenesis. These courses are certainly hard, but sometimes that is the best way to learn. Whether I find myself going to medical school, graduate school or even finding a job straight out of college, that is the beauty of earning my degree—it will give me all of those options.

As a University Distinguished Scholar and now a College of Natural Science (NatSci) Dean’s Research Scholar, I can share my experiences with the alumni whose time and financial support are the very reason I am able to be here. Last October, I spoke at MSU’s Kellogg Center for NatSci’s Empower Extraordinary Campaign, finally able to bridge that gap between student and benefactor. I embraced the chance to tell Michigan State patrons how their contributions have changed my life and how it has brought the science to life for me.

For the past three years, I have worked in Dr. Leonel Mendoza’s laboratory. My research project, studying biofilm found on eye-washers, differs vastly from the work he is known for. But that is an aspect that I greatly appreciate. Three years ago (my freshman year), what started as another undergraduate senior’s capstone project, is now my project. I am responsible for how it progresses. Dr. Mendoza has been an amazing mentor and trusted me, allowing me to choose the direction.

As a completely independent project, we lack the government grants so many other labs use. So, I have learned how to write and apply for research funds. Research funds that alumni donations made possible because they believed in me.

Besides my appreciation for basic research itself, I have found plenty of ways to incorporate my love for science into other parts of my life. My involvement with the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment (RISE) Program brought me in contact with another awesome mentor, Dr. Laurie Thorp, the director of the program. She has taught me so much about life, how to be happy and what we can do to be environmentally conscious. It doesn’t take much to care for nature, be conscious of our carbon footprint and protect our planet. We only have one after all.

As an upperclassman, I can’t help but look back and appreciate the journey I’ve taken and the people who have helped me get here. Being a Dean’s Research Scholar has been an amazing chapter of my life, and I look forward to seeing what the rest of the story holds.