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WM: On the Edge of Discovery

Nhan Huynh ’24 has always loved science and found his calling in the field after two of his close friends were diagnosed with cancer. The Vietnam native has spent the past several years focused on pursuing a career in cancer biology research in hopes of improving the outcomes for patients.

It’s common for a student to come to Wabash and not instantly have it all planned out.

“Most of our students end up going to graduate school before they figure out what specific branch of chemistry, for example, they want to study as a career,” explains Chemistry Professor Wally Novak. “It’s the rare cases where somebody finds something to latch on to so early, and comes in with a drive to conduct research, constantly read papers, and further their own knowledge.”

Nhan Huynh ’24, a biochemistry and financial economics double major, is one of those rare cases. 

“I plan to earn a Ph.D. in cancer biology,” Huynh has proudly declared since his freshman year. 

Nhan Huynh ’24“That’s why I came to the U.S. and ultimately chose Wabash,” he says. “I liked the small class sizes and the opportunity for students to work on research projects with professors. I felt like I would get the support I need to pursue graduate studies.”     

It all started the summer before his senior year of high school. Huynh attended a program that focused on a variety of research topics including cancer biology.

He liked that cancer research is not something that can easily be predicted.

“I enjoy the challenge,” Huynh says with a smile. “Conducting research can turn our objective in different directions at the end of the day, and I find that quite interesting. Many people can become frustrated when something doesn’t work. But when you keep trying and discover something that does work, it’s amazing.”

His drive became personal after two of his close friends received cancer diagnoses. 

“One of them was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and the other with thyroid cancer. This was two years ago. Both were really young,” says Huynh. “When people who I care about got it, that strengthened my will to do cancer research.”

Novak says huynh has contributed an impressive amount of work as a student researcher at Wabash. 

“Professor Ann Taylor had him in her general chemistry course. She came to me and said, ‘I have a student who is super excited to do some research. He’s interested in cancer,’” says Novak, who first connected with Huynh near the end of his freshman year. “My research isn’t directly related to cancer, but a lot of the things that we do are very similar.”

Novak recalls Huynh’s ability to learn exceptionally quickly early on. 

“Nhan was one of those students who could watch me do something once and then he was good to go,” says Novak. “He has really good lab hands and he pays close attention to what he’s doing when he’s doing it, which has allowed him to move forward in his research very quickly.

“Before he took any biochemistry or molecular biology courses, Nhan was in my research lab and we’re talking about doing PCR reactions—which is amplifying DNA—and designing really complicated primers in order to stitch things back together,” he says. “Nhan picked up on that and was able to design primers that work to assemble these genes in new ways.”

Thanks to support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Novak and Biology Professor Erika Sorensen-Kamakian have been studying the impacts of protein level control on human development and disease. 

With the help of research students like Huynh, the team has focused on developing new methods for controlling protein levels in the roundworm, C. elegans, using the Latching Orthogonal Cage/Key pRoteins (LOCKR) method. LOCKR can be used to modify gene expression, which could lead to new therapies for cancer, autoimmune disorders, and other diseases. 

Part of Huynh’s work in the lab, Novak explained, includes cloning DNA in order for the team to conduct experiments. 

“Nhan has manipulated more DNA than any student I’ve ever had by a long shot,” he says. 
“He has almost single-handedly driven the molecular biology part of my lab, and that’s been super helpful to the work Dr. Sorensen-Kamakian and I have been conducting with this NSF grant,” says Novak. “His efforts have kept that project moving along in a way that is impactful to me and the other students who work in the lab. We will continue to utilize his clones for years to come.” 

In addition to his studies at Wabash, Huynh has also pursued research off campus.

Last summer, he interned at the University of Colorado’s Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine and studied the function of the SASH1 gene in developing skin pigmentation disorders.

Huynh presented his findings at the Celebration of Student Research, Scholarship, and Creative Work in the spring and was named one of three Celebration Research, Scholarship, and Creativity Award winners. The $150 prizes were awarded to the students who most effectively articulated their gains in professional development and personal growth as a result of their research, scholarship, or creative work. 

“I like presenting at events like the Celebration because it is fun to teach students, especially non-science majors, something new,” says Huynh. “It can be challenging to step away from the academic speak to the really basic and simplified version, but I like doing that and watching people connect to my research and understand that it is important.”

This summer, Huynh worked as a cancer biology research intern at Rutgers University. 

“They assigned me to work with a professor who has spent years studying cancer biology,” Huynh says. “I have always been close but have never focused specifically on what I want to study.

“I feel like the experiences and skills that I gained in my previous summer internship and on campus prepared me to move to this level,” Huynh said. “I am getting closer and closer to my Ph.D.”

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