Grad School

Georgia Tech Student Opens Up About Pursuing an Advanced Degree as a Vietnamese American

Thomas Pho didn’t start his college career knowing he would be pursuing a Ph.D. in the chemical sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, but he is now on his way to a doctorate in chemical and biomolecular engineering. Pho is one of 30 students who credits his success with the graduate school application process to the ACS Bridge Program, a preparatory program that helps underrepresented minorities gain research experience, advanced coursework, mentoring, and coaching.

inChemistry talked to Pho about his unique challenges applying to graduate school, his goals, and his experiences in the Bridge Program. 

What made you want to pursue science as a career? Did anyone insire you?

I actually was pre-medical for a long time. I majored in chemistry and biology at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. I held an emergency medical technician (EMT) license, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation and Basic Life Support instructor license, and even a pharmacy technician position. But I changed my mind on the idea of medicine after working at the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) and other labs for around three years.

I got to publish a few papers, experience great collaboration and new innovations. I also wanted to be a role model for people of color (POC).

In general, a lot of POC don’t have parents who finish college, and the majority of graduate students come from families with higher education. So, it was important for me as a Vietnamese American to be someone who can represent POCs in this situation.

There is such a lack of diversity in STEM graduate school when it comes to ethnicities, especially when it comes to the Vietnamese community. Having more people within the Vietnamese community represented in STEM allows graduate school in STEM to be more accepted and normalized to Vietnamese who are considering a career in STEM.

One mentor who inspired me was my undergraduate principal investigator, Vivian Feng. We were an all-undergraduate research group, but we would collaborate within CSN University of Minnesota branch. Vivian was a principal investigator who would make evaluating data exciting, and she built such a friendly research group environment with weekly outings during the summer.

Thomas Pho in laboratory
Last fall, Pho worked on engineering protein clusters for intranasal vaccine delivery, part of a project designing a universal vaccine for influenza using recombinant protein and nanotechnology.

What challenges did you face getting into graduate school? How did the ACS Bridge program help?

One of the challenges I faced going into graduate school was the fact that I abruptly switched from applying to medical school to graduate school during the Spring semester of senior year. The Bridge program helped send out my application to various graduate programs and allowed me to apply to interdisciplinary engineering programs that normal chemistry/biology majors may not be allowed to get into. This allowed me to get into graduate school after I graduated from my undergraduate career. 

What other resources did you draw upon before applying to grad school?

I was going to take a post-baccalaureate researcher position at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, but I obtained the ACS Bridge position instead. Post-baccalaureate programs, career and grad school events at ACS conferences, and your college graduate opportunity office are great resources if you want more insight on different programs, help studying for the GRE, and input on your personal statement.

What did you do as part of the ACS Bridge Program, and how did those experiences help prepare you for grad school?

The Bridge program builds a great network of support for graduate students. We are able to get to know individuals who are also underrepresented as a support group, and they provide more advice and guidance for bridge schools both through ACS Bridge and at your home school. These experiences from ACS Bridge help combat imposter syndrome and navigating through school. Having a good support system is important because as a classically trained chemist and biologist, I was overwhelmed by the graduate-level chemical engineering course I took.

What did you learn from your mentors and coaches?

The best thing I learned from my mentors and coaches is that science isn’t easy and sometimes things don’t work out, so it’s important to have a great group to get support from when things don’t work out.

Tell us about your current research.

My research is under the supervision of Julie Champion at the school of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. My work is on the development and engineering of a novel universal influenza nanovaccine using recombinant protein for intranasal delivery. This program is on the interface of materials science and protein engineering. I have also been working on incorporation of inorganic materials in my nanoparticle fabrication and recently published a paper.

What courses have you completed? Which course did you like most? What was most challenging?

I have taken Kinetics and Reactor Design, Math Methods of Applied Sciences, Transport Phenomena, Advanced Chemical Engineering Thermodynamics, Analytical Biochemistry, Protein Engineering, and Global Health and Bioengineering.

  • My favorite course I’ve taken is Protein Engineering. We got to learn about advanced methods of protein development and practiced writing grants.
  • My most challenging class was Kinetics and Reactor Design. My background is in chemistry and biology, and this course is aimed at chemical engineers, so there was a lot of background I had to learn.

When you complete grad school, what do you envision your career path look to like? What experiences—in the Bridge program or elsewhere—have prepared you for that path? 

I’m still not sure what I would like to do after graduate school. My hope is to get an internship while I’m in graduate school to have a better understanding of the role in industry. The Bridge program helps provide opportunities to have a better understanding of both academia and industry.

When you’re not studying or doing research, what do you like to do? 

Outside of research I enjoy hiking around Atlanta with my Siberian husky, going to restaurants around Atlanta with my friends pre-quarantine, and staying active. 

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About the ACS Bridge Project 

The ACS Bridge Project’s mission is to strengthen chemistry in the United States by increasing the number of underrepresented minority students who receive doctoral degrees in chemical sciences.

Thomas Pho
Thomas Pho is currently a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology working on his doctorate in chemical and biomolecular engineering.