As a youngster growing up in Ho Chi Minh City, Thuy Dao ’07 talked so much and argued so well that her parents thought she ought to be a lawyer. But Dao felt a different chemistry. Now 22, she is a 12-hour-a-day researcher and self-confessed “lab rat” at Whitman College.
The title conveys her diligence but masks her achievement. This spring Dao graduated from Whitman’s demanding Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology program with a cum laude honor stole, membership in Phi Beta Kappa and accolades from every professor who has taught her.
“Thuy is the most dedicated, enthusiastic research student I’ve supervised here out of dozens I’ve worked with over the past 11 years,” said Associate Professor of Biology Dan Vernon.
“She is uniquely motivated, simply loves doing science and has been very fun to work with,” said Doug Juers, an assistant professor of physics at Whitman who, like Vernon, is a beneficiary of Dao’s meticulous research.
She is also the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Dao’s success story only begins there. Brandeis University, the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins University all accepted her into their graduate programs. She chose Hopkins and will move to Baltimore next month to begin work on her Ph.D, which she expects to complete in five years.
“My time at Whitman has been wonderful preparation for a science career,” said Dao, adding liquid nitrogen to a plant specimen to extract an RNA sample in Vernon’s lab. “You don’t have as many choices here as you do at a larger school, but that’s not what matters. What matters is the learning, and here you have the focus and attention of teachers to learn a lot.”
Dao’s example reflects the premium Whitman puts on interdisciplinary research and experiential learning. Her work, which feeds both Vernon’s and Juers’ labs, is focused on Plant Intracellular Ras-group LRR proteins — code name PIRLs — and the genes that encode them. Vernon’s lab identified PIRL genes a few years ago, and last year the National Science Foundation gave him a $365,000 grant to study their function in plant development, physiology and reproduction.
Dao joined Vernon’s lab in her junior year. Her PIRL investigation involves mutant plants, specifically “gene knockout” mutants in which two closely-related PIRL genes have been disrupted. By comparing mutant and normal species, Vernon’s group hopes to determine when the genes are active and what biological processes they affect.
“Thuy’s work will be a major contribution to at least one publication that we’ll be writing in the near future, and she may contribute to a second paper,” Vernon said.
He and Juers are mentors and academic models for Dao, who hopes to teach after completing her Ph.D. “Doug connected the physics to the biology for me,” she said. “He’s so devoted to teaching, to making sure students learn and that they enjoy doing it. You can feel his passion for the subject. Dan is very open and supportive. He always encourages new ideas. He’ll talk to you about everything from projects to grad schools, and he’s very funny.”
Vernon rues the day — sometime in mid-August — when Dao will leave his lab and head to Hopkins. “Thuy has been an incredibly committed research student, and has been very productive in the lab,” he said.
For Dao, the hard work is all in a day’s discovery and fun. “I just like what I do, so I spend a lot of time doing it,” she said. “A lot of the work we do in science seems pointless on the surface because it doesn’t produce many breakthroughs; it just contributes to a body of knowledge. But there’s something fascinating in everything that happens in the lab, and someday it will be of use.”
Dao came to the United States in 1999, settling in Seattle and excelling at Rainier Beach High School. She entered the University of Washington with top marks and solid recommendations. She left, disappointed and disillusioned, after three terms.
“U.W. was so big, so impersonal,” she said. “I had classes with 300 students. You’d show up, sit and listen to the professor talk all of the time.”
Marylee Webbeking, Dao’s English teacher in high school, recommended Whitman to her. In the spring of 2005, Dao went east to Walla Walla. “Whitman opened me up,” she said. “Two years ago, I would not have talked to you about my work, about my life, about anything.”
Away from the lab, Dao is a dedicated rock-climber and Ultimate Frisbee player. She’s also a member of Delta Delta Delta, a sorority known for its community service, and has volunteered as a Vietnamese translator since high school.
“I like the ties that Whitman has with the community,” she said. “And I’ve loved my time at school. Professors here are open to ideas and flexible to make them happen. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”
Office of Communications, Whitman College