Dr. Tran Nguyen is an Assistant Professor at the University of California at Davis. She leads a research lab at UC Davis conducting atmospheric chemistry research, and teaches college courses on environmental chemistry.
What projects/research are you working on now?
I’m working on a project that aims to understand how monoterpene emissions from trees will get oxidized by the nitrate radical in the atmosphere. We study this reaction because it’s important in many areas where emissions from trees meet urban pollution. Our goal is to integrate our results into chemistry-coupled atmospheric models. My group uses a large chamber to mimic the oxidation that occurs in the atmosphere, in a more isolated and controlled way. It is generally a challenge to faithfully reproduce the conditions of nitrate radical oxidation in the lab but my group has put together a series of experiments that we believe would represent the chemistry in the atmosphere more closely, thus allowing us to study the chemical mechanism and yields of organic aerosols and organic nitrogen in a relevant way. So far, we’ve been able to reproduce a compound that was seen in the field but has been elusive in the lab, and we’re excited to see the next results.
What drew you to this career or field?
I wasn’t one of those people who knew I wanted to be a scientist from a young age, but I knew I wanted to make a positive difference for the environment in any way possible (whether through design, economics, business, etc.) because I lived in Southern California and air pollution was a prominent problem. At first, I was pursuing Art at the University of Southern California (USC), but got disillusioned with that career choice and switched over to Chemistry after realizing how versatile and interesting it is. So it started with a great General Chemistry course, then I went on to get a Chemistry degree. And even though I didn’t have prior experience with Atmospheric Chemistry, I applied to Chemistry PhD programs that had specialties in Atmospheric Chemistry because that’s a problem I wanted to work on. I ended up at UC Irvine, where I had a fantastic experience. I knew I wanted to stay in academia when I was doing my postdoc at Caltech, because I never wanted to leave that type of scientifically creative environment. I couldn’t think of a job better than the research I was doing right then. I have never regretted this career choice – it has been so fun and rewarding.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Picking one thing is hard, but I love being able to ask and answer questions related to the world around us, solving problems, and facing new challenges constantly. I also love interacting with students – especially the ones that have a natural curiosity and are starting to figure out what they want out of life.
Is there someone who you look to as a role model, someone who has inspired or encouraged you (male or female)? Tell us about them.
I have lots of role models and people who have inspired and encouraged me, but I’ll give two notable examples. The first is when I started taking chemistry courses in college, I was struggling to make the switch from art. But an amazing Chemistry Lab Director, Dr. Michael Quinlan, at USC always made time in his office whenever I needed help with the material. He gave me so much tutoring, mentoring, and encouragement throughout my time at USC. Even as I graduated, he told me that he never worried about me because he knows I’ll be fine. I keep that close to me, his words really helped me whenever I needed some confidence. I believe that, if not for him, I wouldn’t have a career in chemistry. Another role model of mine is someone I met when I was doing a postdoc at Caltech, Dr. John Crounse. John is the most awe-inspiring scientist I’ve ever met. He’s someone who can steadfastly solve any problem in front of him, and has done quite a few things that I have thought were not possible (such that now I’ve changed my view on what is possible). His confidence in me, and the fact that he’s shown me so many times that challenges just need to be broken down and conquered piece by piece, inspired me. I also look to him as an example of patience, fairness, generosity, and scientific integrity.
What does success mean to you?
Success to me is being able to do good and interesting science on a regular basis, help solve the problems that I think are important, and to be as inspiring to others as my role models are to me.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in your career/field, or in general, and how have you overcome them?
Fortunately, no one in my career has treated me any differently because I’m a woman! I like to think that I’m a scientist, not a woman scientist. But there are definitely times when being a woman in this intense, often stressful, job has its unique challenges that male colleagues might be shielded from. Pregnancy, childbirth and maternal childcare in this job has been hard for me. I wasn’t ready for how incapacitated one can feel in this process. Even with a supportive partner, I cannot outsource any of my primary care duties relating to my child, and often have to pick between taking care of my child (whether that means physically being with her or doing things for her like pumping milk) or my lab. After adding the teaching and mentoring duties on top of that, it sometimes becomes an overwhelming task to find balance. I’m not sure I’ve overcome these challenges. Like other professors and working professionals who are mothers, I just try to survive, do the best I can, and still enjoy the process. All in all, though, I’m very happy to have a wonderful child and a job I love.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future? What do you hope the future for women in science looks like?
I hope in the future, women are so ubiquitous in science (and academia) that we don’t need to do anything special to recognize women. Also that everyone can find more balance with their roles as caregivers and their professional duties.
Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself when you were 12 years old? Or what advice would you give to a woman just starting out in her career?
I would tell myself to more fully embrace my struggles and to step outside of my comfort zone more often. All those times when I felt comfortable, I wasn’t really growing. One of my old friends in college once left a card with me while I was sleeping (we had been studying all night), where she wrote one of Freud’s quotes: “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” I still love that sentiment to this day, and believe it to be a good thing for any person to keep in mind.