Anne Nguyen is a PhD student in Dr. Shyh-Dar Li’s Laboratory of Targeted Drug Delivery and Nanomedicine at UBC Pharm Sci, and co-chair of the UBC Pharmaceutical Sciences Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
(This interview was conducted in-person prior to the COVID-19 situation and onset of physical distancing. Anne has provided recent updates at the end of the interview.)
Julia Kreger: What is your research project?
Anne Nguyen: I work with hydrophobic anti-cancer drugs. They have poor aqueous solubility and so I use a little bit of chemistry to turn them into prodrugs, which form nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are basically tiny little spheres that we fill with drugs.
JK: How does using nanoparticles improve drug delivery?
AN: We have drugs that are able to attack cancer cells, but the problem is effectively getting the drugs to the site of action. For example, if you deliver a hydrophobic cancer drug intravenously it’s less effective on its own and gets cleared easily. But with nanoparticles, because they don’t get cleared as easily from the body, they have a higher chance of accumulating in tumor sites and releasing the drug. So, the main benefits of using nanoparticles are that they protect the drug from degradation, improve its circulation time in the blood, and give the drug a better chance to reach the target site.
JK: What does this look like in the lab?
AN: I’m usually at my fume-hood or bench synthesizing my conjugates or preparing my nanoparticles to test them in cells or in animals. If I’m not doing either of those things, I am analyzing my compounds on a number of different instruments. There's a lot of running around and checking if I’ve got the right compound or not!
JK: Where are you up to in your project?
AN: There are different layers to my thesis, but the foundational synthesis part is basically done. It’s very exciting to get to the testing stage!
JK: I imagine it would be! Have you had any changes of direction along the way? Or has your project followed a fairly linear path?
AN: Originally, I was working with conjugating drugs to DNA and that didn’t work out. So now I'm conjugating to polymers instead. That was a big shift in the beginning, but it’s been pretty linear from there. Although I don’t know what’s going to happen after we test it. It might change!
JK: What’s unique about your project?
AN: What’s unique is that it’s supposed to be “easy chemistry.” The idea is that it’s supposed to be simple, and chemistry can get complicated. So that’s one angle we are going for – to show that this can be achieved simply.
JK: What’s your end goal for your research?
AN: I just hope that I can show that the basic platform that I'm creating works and show that it does actually improve the delivery of these compounds.
JK: Tell me about your life before joining UBC Pharm Sci. Did you study chemistry in your undergrad?
AN: I did, I completed my bachelor of science in chemistry at UBC. I’ve been here forever! To be honest, undergrad was a difficult time for me. The material was challenging, and it felt really fast-paced. But what really got me to appreciate chemistry is the CO-OP program. I was able to do work for 16 months at two different companies.
JK: What co-ops did you do?
AN: I spent eight months experiencing the synthetic side of the industry in the United States and then I spent eight months at a nanoparticle company. That’s when I found out about this field and fell in love with it because it showed me that you don’t need to use overly complicated chemistry to do really amazing things. The core of nanomedicines and drug delivery is simple, but the impact is significant. It was this co-op term that led me to realize I wanted to pursue this area further.
JK: How have you found your time at Pharm Sci? Are you happy here?
AN: Yes, absolutely. I don't know if everyone else experiences imposter syndrome in their first couple of years, but I definitely had that. But the environment here – I love everything about it. Especially my lab. We’re one of the bigger labs, and Star (Dr. Shyh-Dar Li) encourages that we all work similar hours because it promotes collaboration, talking to each other, and getting to know each other. I feel that it’s helped with building relationships here. I love all the people in my lab and I see them as my family. I never feel like I have to tackle anything alone because I know I can talk it through with Star and my lab-mates.
JK: Star’s lab does appear to be a hive of activity! I’ve heard research can sometimes be an isolating experience so I’m glad you’ve found a supportive environment.
AN: Definitely. I consider myself incredibly lucky to land in this lab. Also, outside of the lab I find that the community of graduate students is incredible. Everyone is so welcoming, and a lot of us eat lunch together in the graduate student lounge every day. It’s a really positive environment. The research can be difficult and there’s been a lot of tears and frustration, but it’s supposed to be hard, I think.
JK: Do you have any general advice for prospective or new graduate students?
AN: I was actually talking to one of our volunteer students about this recently because he's thinking of going to grad school. It's really hard to know what a lab environment will be like when you're just reading someone's research online. The environment you will be in really matters because it’s such an investment to spend every weekday for at least two years in one lab. My best advice would be to try to visit the lab that you’re interested in. Talk to the people who work there. See what the atmosphere is like – you can get a feel for that just by walking around. Also, when you start grad school make sure you clearly understand what the expectations are with your PI because every PI is different and has different ways of working.
JK: What would you like to do when you graduate?
AN: I would like to work in industry. My two co-op terms were such positive experiences. I’m definitely thinking a pharmaceutical company but I’m not sure on details. I’m happy that my research is quite broad so there’s different aspects of it that I could apply in industry. We’ll see!
Update: May 2020
JK: How are you coping as a graduate student during the COVID-19 pandemic?
AN: I am doing well! I really do miss everyone in the lab and building, and I miss doing experiments. But I am quite fortunate that I can work on writing during this time.
JK: What are some things that have helped you stay positive at this time?
AN: Zoom has been a huge thing during this time. I’ve been talking to my friends a lot more, staying active, and just embracing all of the extra time.
Graduate Student Conversations is an ongoing interview series designed to highlight our exceptional PhD and MSc candidates and their work, achievements, and experiences at UBC Pharm Sci.
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