What has your experience at ISB been like so far?
I’ve only been here for a little over a year. I started in June, in the middle of the pandemic, but so far it has been really positive. I came from a really small company, it was almost like a start-up, so I just didn’t have that many people around to ask questions to. We had to do pretty much everything, like I was HR, IT, etc. If there were any issues, I would have to figure it out. So, coming to ISB, I just love that there’s resources for everything. I think the people here have been so supportive of research and are just really friendly and kind. Especially working with Eliza and Nitin, you can just tell they’re super supportive of wherever I need to progress in my career and to do the research. It’s been great.
What was your college experience like?
College was kind of a shock. I think I got away with doing pretty well in school and high school without putting in as much effort as I thought I would need. So, I did okay. I mean it wasn’t easy but going to college was a shock – I went to the University of Washington. I knew I wanted to do something with science, and the first couple of classes I took during first quarter of freshman year, had like 400 people. You don’t really know your professors, and it was just a lot. You really have to keep up with the work and readings, so I struggled. I wasn’t prepared, but I still really enjoyed the classes and the topics. Once we were able to do hands-on lab stuff, I really just loved it. That’s probably why I’m doing what I’m doing now. I just love being hands-on, I don’t enjoy being at a desk all day.
Did you major in Biology?
I did. I majored in Cell and Molecular Biology. I took some Microbiology classes that I really enjoyed, so I added that on as a second major. I think at the time UW’s Biology degree was very broad. I felt like Microbiology gave me a bit more focus. It was really fun to grow cultures and stuff like that.
Any college advice?
The friends and bonds that you form are important. You kind of suffer together and it helps to have people that are fun to be around. It’s not all bad, but the expectation for classes was really high. I would say go in with an open mind. You may be really set on doing something, but don’t feel so much pressure to be like “I know exactly what I want to do, and I have to do this”. I feel like in high school, I didn’t really care much for science. But, once I started taking science classes I was like, “woah this is really cool”.
Might have already touched on this a bit but, what did you do before ISB?
So, I worked for a start-up company. Originally, we were looking at pre-RNA and bacteria. The concept is that sometimes it takes a really long time to grow a culture. If you’re in the hospital and you have to be diagnosed, you want immediate results. The idea is that if you stimulate a culture and give it nutrients, then the bacteria in there will start creating the mechanisms of growth. You don’t actually have to see growth. You just have to monitor the molecules that indicate growth. We were looking at pre-RNA.
Towards the end, I started working on malaria. Malaria is this deadly parasite, but it is really finicky to grow – it is really frustrating. You have to be in the lab every day to culture malaria just to keep your cultures going and your experiments are relying on them. My job was to create an automated system so people wouldn’t have to come in every day. The concept is taking off media, adding media, and then gassing the culture. In theory, that should be really easy for a machine to do. It was really fun to have a problem and try to solve it.
What research are you currently working on?
I am still learning about the projects Eliza is working on. One of them is the DRonA project. I kinda just touched the surface of understanding that. The other project I am working on involves TB in the BSL 3 lab at Children’s. For TB you can knock down genes using CRISPR. I don’t do that, but the team has been doing that. There are genes that have been knocked down that have been evaluated as strains and are being kept in the BSL 3. So, what I do is grow the strains in the presence of drug compounds in plates to measure the optical density to see if the cultures are increasing, decreasing, or staying the same. There are also a variety of things you can do. You can treat the bacteria with the drugs and then grow them on plates and then physically count colonies. It is way more accurate than optical density but it is way more labor intensive. However, it is helpful for setting a baseline of understanding what you’re seeing.
What was your dream job when you were younger and how does it compare to what you are doing now?
When I was really, really little I wanted to be a princess. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left high school until I took a couple science classes.
What’s the most surprising thing you have learned or experienced in science?
The facilities that I have worked in have surprised me. When I worked with malaria, I had to physically go into the insectary and feed mosquitoes blood cells from our cultures. Eventually, you have to collect them and put them in ethanol where they die. After that they can be dissected to see how many oocysts are forming inside the gut that will eventually lead to infection. I think that is so cool because there are very few insectaries in the area. Also, this current opportunity to go into the BSL3 to work with TB is so cool. Getting to work in these state-of-the-art facilities has been pretty awesome.
What are you passionate about outside of science?
I love baking because it is like science, but you get to eat it. I love the technical aspect of baking and eating. I like to explore ice cream flavors. I also grew up in the church and I am still pretty active there. There is always this discussion between science and God being separate, but I feel like they are so intertwined. So, I feel like you can believe in both.
Also, I have a rabbit that we rescued 5 years ago. They are pretty fun.
Have you worked with high school interns in the past? Why did you choose to?
I haven’t worked with high school interns. I have worked with high schoolers through the church; I used to be a counselor. When this opportunity came up, I was like ‘this would be awesome’. I think interns bring fresh perspectives and really good questions. I think that when you’re in this environment for so long you forget about curiosity, and you just want to get your work done. I think it is really cool to get a fresh perspective from the both of you.
Did you grow up in the Seattle area?
Yes, I did. My parents are immigrants from Laos. They immigrated here in January of 1980, and I was born in August of 1980. I went to 3 schools in the Seattle district and then UW. I love to travel, but this is home. I couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else.
What part of your work are you most proud of?
I think I execute technical experiments well, so I am pretty proud of that. I also am proud of being part of projects. Going into research as an associate or tech, you don’t really think you would get to be part of papers because you’re not writing them. But my previous PIs have always encouraged that. So just the opportunity to be part of papers has been really cool too.