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Phu Van


1.What is your educational and professional background?
Phu has a Bachelors in Ecology and Physiology. He worked as a computational biologist at ISB. He has worked as a professional photographer, a systems administrator for a research center, worked with the federal government as a field ecologist, and other jobs.

2. What are some of your daily activities?
Phu does not have daily projects, instead, Dr. Baliga assigns him a six month or year project. Dr. Baliga then decides what kinds of experiments his lab group will do, and what kinds of analysis Phu will do, so its very free form. “Systems Biology, as you may found out, is more exploratory, so you have the rough idea of what you want to do. You can’t work abruptly, instead you do what the data tells you to do.”

3. In your opinion, what is the most interesting part of your job?
Phu likes the idea that he gets to work with people of a variety of backgrounds. For example, he gets to work with Deep and Min who are Research Associates and are great at doing research on the bench. “One of the great things about ISB and working in a lab is that people pick up the strengths of each other. I don’t know everything about working on a bench, so I ask Deep and she tutors me, and she doesn’t know how to do certain types of analysis so I help her. So I kind of look forward to that.” Phu also feels that by working in a lab you get the chance to discover new information. “You never know what you don’t know. You never know that people are doing things with things that are even existing. And that opens new horizons.”

4. What is most challenging for you?
“It’s all about personality. Time pressure is hard for me. For example, after this interview, I have several hours to produce just one graph. A paper only has 4 to 5 figures at most. Those figures cost a lot of money. They all have to relate a message. You don’t want to have a random picture, it has to be one of the major points. When people talk about writing, they talk about what is your thesis? What is your main statement? You want to structure a couple of ideas, a couple of figures. One of the figures we have is an entire Halo network. That has never been done before. That’s thousands of nodes and genes interacting with each other. And that particular figure, running up the algorithms, running up the analysis, running up the figures took me eight months.” As Phu said previously, it is Dr. Baliga that decides what experiments his lab does, then Deep and Min complete those labs, and finally Phu analyzes the data to produce figures. Those figures are then used as proof and supporting data in papers. “You have a set of questions and work until you have the answer, it could be a day or it could be a month.”

5. Where do you see yourself in the future?
At the end of July, Phu left the Institute of Systems Biology to join the PhD. program at Carnegie-Mellon. We then asked what he wants to do after getting his PhD. Phu then replied, “There are three ways for a scientist to do work. One is doing research. Another is not just producing the science, but applying science policies on a committee. The other one is teaching. And I want to try all three at the same time.”

6. Do you see yourself doing systems biology in the future?
According to Phu, it depends on the situation. Computer modeling and statistical analysis is universally applicable and will remain a very useful skill. At the same time, if you are studying a very specific enzyme or gene etc. using a systems approach of broad analysis will not be appropriate.  “Here we are making new science. So we don’t want to say something that someone has already said before. We want to do new things. And, of course, when we do new things, people are always going to ask for proof, where are your experiments and what is your support?”

7. Is there anything you would do differently?
For his education, Phu was free to do whatever he pleased. At the University of Washington, Phu took classes from astronomy to zoology. He took one random class every class each quarter. “I came to UW to do computer science, not biology. Those years helped me, but I wish I could have gotten involved with biology earlier.”

8. Would you prefer to do lab work now?
“I think so, but one of the big challenges in life is deciding between what you want to do and what you need to do.” Since Phu is best at computational, he feels that he should stick to that. Many research scientists and research associates need Phu’s computational skills to analyze their data.

9. Why and how did you come here?
Before working at ISB, Phu worked in the rural parts of eastern Washington. He wanted to do something more bench-related, so he applied to ISB. Phu did not hear a response soon. So, he contacted Pat Durman. Pat told Phu that Dr. Baliga wanted him to work in the computational area of the lab because Phu had previous computational experience. “I didn’t anticipate doing computational biology.”

10. Do you have any advice for future scientists?
“Keep an open mind, be committed, and have fun. If science isn’t fun, then you shouldn’t be doing it. It should be strenuous and stressful, but it should be fun. At the end of the day, you should say, “Now I know something. And I am one of the few people on the planet that knows this. And explain it to someone, they will believe me and say, ‘Wow dude, that is cool.’ You cannot find that feeling anywhere else. And science is one of the very few careers that offer you that experience.” Phu also mentioned, “A good scientist is ultimately flexible, so you need to be able to do all these things, if you want to be competitive or flexible. The era of you’re a chemist, you’re an engineer, or you’re a physicist is coming to a close, if it hasn’t already.”

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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