Astronaut Scholarship Keeps Justin Vinh in Research Orbit

June 26, 2024 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

Justin Vinh’s determination as a cancer researcher and his thirst for knowledge have led him to being named an Astronaut Scholar.

The Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s awards are valued up to $15,000, plus participation in the foundation’s Innovators Symposium and Gala, mentorship, professional development and networking.

Vinh, a rising fourth-year biomedical engineering student at the University of Virginia with a data science minor, aspires to be a physician-scientist pursuing cancer research, continuing the work he has started at the University and the National Cancer Institute.

“These resources will be invaluable as I continue conducting research in the years after I graduate,” Vinh said of the scholarship. “I hope to return to the National Cancer Institute for a year or two before applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs to further my education. Eventually, my goal is to become a physician-scientist running an oncology-focused lab at a research institution, but I know the path there will be difficult.”

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It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia
It's closer than you think. University of Virginia Northern Virginia

As a youngster, Vinh, of Sterling, was plagued with allergies – life-threatening food allergies to milk, peanuts, eggs, gluten and garlic, among others – and environmental allergies that left him unable to touch people or objects without wearing thick woolen gloves.

The allergies limited his educational choices to homeschooling. As some of his childhood allergies waned and his demand for knowledge grew, Vinh enrolled in Northern Virginia Community College at age 15. He graduated from high school with 73 college credits.

“I was always an active, inquisitive kid, and I needed to always be learning new things to find satisfaction in life,” Vinh said.

During that time, Vinh’s allergies drove him forward in some ways and hampered him in others. At the community college, he worked in the tutoring center, was president of the honors club and founded a photography club. But he felt the need to stay close to home when he went to college, an important element in coming to UVA.

“My parents would come down every weekend to bring me food during my time in dorms because I did not have a kitchen, single-handedly making coming to UVA a reality for me,” he said. “Perhaps the greatest gift that having allergies gave me was my appreciation for friendship and being present socially. Not being able to enjoy the same foods at dining halls and restaurants taught me that the real joy of food was never the food – it was the time spent with friends bonding over the dining table.”

“I wanted to stay true to my engineering roots and continue to play a core role in developing those therapies, improving them and trying to develop new ones.”

Initially, Vinh wanted to pursue immunology – until he took a student-taught course on cancer biology advised by Christopher Highley, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and chemical engineering.

“There was something enthralling about a disease that one can’t catch for the most part and was so difficult in treating simply because it was a mirror image of ourselves – but better,” he said. “The tumors were a part of us that had gone rogue, gaining almost a level of sentience, commanding new blood vessels to form to feed their ravenous growth, suppressing the immune system, and rapidly mutating to evade our own ever-evolving treatments. It was utterly fascinating and a challenge that I could see myself dedicating my life to solving.”

Vinh began work at assistant professor Natasha Sheybani’s lab, which focuses on innovating tools for non-invasive precision cancer management. An internship at the National Cancer Institute last summer solidified Vinh’s interest in research.

Vinh in a lab performing a test

Vinh plans a career in medical research, particularly cancer research. (Contributed photo)

“I decided that I would never truly be happy just applying therapies and practicing purely clinical medicine,” he said. “I wanted to stay true to my engineering roots and continue to play a core role in developing those therapies, improving them and trying to develop new ones.”

With his intense dedication to research, Vinh also has his diversions. His father, an avid photographer, gave him a camera when he was 11. Vinh went from a photo class to founding the NOVA Photography Club, becoming a photographer for Catholic Hoos and the St. Thomas Aquinas parish, to launching this own photo business. 

“I find that I too often get carried away with school and forget to enjoy the small moments in life,” Vinh said. “Photography forces me to slow down and look at the world around me, finding the beauty in oft-overlooked details.”

A self-described “space nerd,” Vinh watched hours of space exploration documentaries as a child, dreaming of designing unmanned space vehicles. Vinh looked at space exploration against his own personal limits.

“I wanted to determine my own future,” he said. “For so much of my life, my food allergies dictated what I could or could not do, and I was terrified because I did not know why. This fear of the unknown was what drove me to develop my love of space.”

Vinh understood that at one point, humans thought space travel impossible, until engineers and human bravery proved otherwise.

“The answers are out there if I should only hunt for them,” he said. “I knew I could not rest until I understood the complexity of the human body. I am pursuing cancer research because this is how I determine my own future, and through my own small contributions to the field, I hope to one day be able to say that I was able to offer cancer patients the ability to determine their own futures as well.”

While he strives in the world of science, Vinh’s faith is also important to him. He is involved in Catholic Hoos, UVA’s Catholic ministry and student group, which forms the core of his experience at UVA outside of classes. He is also a member of the Chess Club, Engineering Guides and he served two years as a resident assistant.

He is president and founder of the C4 Initiative – College Companions & Compassionate Connections – created with the School of Nursing, to help new UVA students find their way at the University.

“The idea for this initiative came after I recognized an unusual rise in posts of loneliness coming from first-years on Reddit,” Vinh said.

A recipient of both a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant and a Raven Society Fellowship, Vinh is busy in the lab this summer. 

“Justin is humble and curious, which are probably the best traits to have as a researcher,” Andrus G. Ashoo, director of the Office of Citizen Scholar Development, said. “He has participated in multiple fellowship processes and so I am thrilled to see him honored in this way. Justin is also delightful to be around and willing to engage with anyone, which will make him an incredible addition to the Astronaut Scholars cohort.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications