Tien-Phat Huynh graduated in 2012 from the University of California, Los Angeles with a B.S. in molecular, cell, and developmental biology and a minor in biomedical research. During the summer of 2011, he worked with HHMI investigator Tom Rapoport at Harvard Medical School as an EXROP student, researching the breakdown mechanisms of lipid droplets. In the fall, he will be attending the M.D./Ph.D. program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Q. How did you become interested in research and medicine?
A. I grew up telling everyone that I didn’t want to be a doctor. It was something that my mom and dad tried to persuade me to do, that the only way to succeed in life was to be a doctor. But I was trying to be a rebel.
Coming into college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I liked a lot of things – I couldn’t decide what I was passionate about. Then, after moving to America for four years, I went back my home country, Vietnam, to visit my grandfather who had a terminal illness. In Vietnam, I was reminded of how life was back there, how difficult things were at the very same place that I was brought up. At the same time, my grandfather was very sick, and that got me thinking. I realized that the healthcare for the people was pretty bad compared to what we have here, and I thought what better way to help others than by doing medicine? So when I came back, I decided to give it a shot. I started volunteering in a hospital and taking biology classes. Slowly, but eventually, I decided I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life.
Q. Why pursue a Ph.D. along with a medical degree?
A. I’ve mentioned that the reason I chose to be a doctor at all was to make an impact on people’s lives, because I personally think that’s the best way for a person to contribute to society. That was the philosophy that I was raised in, growing up in Vietnam. Then I was exposed to science, by working in labs at UCLA and Harvard, and I realized what you do here can change the world. The scientists that come up with the drug for cancer or something like that, they save more lives than any clinician ever does. That inspires me.
I feel like my research will be more meaningful if I can translate it directly into the clinic, but science excites me all the time. Pursuing a Ph.D. will provide me with the mentorship and training that I need to succeed as a scientist. In medical school, you go for four years and become a doctor. With science, you can do it for your whole life and you’re never going to graduate from it. You will always learn something new.
Q. Have you had mentors who have been influential in getting you where you are today?
A. My P.I. at UCLA, Dr. David Teplow, is the one who got me into this whole science thing. He’s a great scientist, a very smart person, and he made me the scientist I am today. Most undergrads go into labs and just do what they’re told to do. That wasn’t the case for me. Before designing an experiment, I was asked questions that require deep thinking and often times I had to look things up to find the answer. I was treated like a real scientist by everybody in the lab, not like an undergrad. I think it’s important to have that kind of guidance and support along the way.
I only spent 12 weeks in my EXROP lab, but the mentorship I received from Dr. Rapoport and support from my direct lab mentor have provided me with an incredible learning experience as well. Being able to learn cutting-edge techniques while working with these very talented and hard-working scientists have broadened my horizon and allowed me push new scientific boundaries. My EXROP experience reassured my love for science and solidified my decision to apply to MD-PhD programs.
Having gone through these experiences, I understand how important it is for a PI to spark an interest in science in their students. It’s critical – it’s a matter of a student who could turn out one way or another, depending on how he or she is mentored. So I’ve been doing what I can to mentor others, particularly by volunteering through the undergraduate research center at UCLA to present at poster sessions that expose undergraduates, high school students, and community college students to research opportunities at UCLA. Currently, I am also training another student to continue working on my project in the lab, as I will be leaving for medical school. Mentorship will always be one of my priorities along my academic career.
Photo: Paul Morigi/AP Images for HHMI