Class of 2021: Dental School-Bound Grad Combines Love of Means, Medians and Molars

May 19, 2021 By Russ Bahorsky, Russ Bahorsky,

Having a paper published by a leading scientific journal is a rare honor for most undergraduates. For soon-to-be University of Virginia graduate Anna Nguyen, who co-wrote a paper with biologist Amanda Gibson on genetic diversity in agricultural systems for Evolution Letters, a cutting-edge journal showcasing groundbreaking research in evolutionary biology, the experience was an important step – not on a path to a career as a research scientist, but as a dentist.

For Nguyen, dental school seemed like a foregone conclusion before she ever set foot on Grounds.

“Dentistry was on my radar because my mom is a dentist, and it’s kind of a cliché that dentists’ children become dentists, too,” Nguyen said.

“Right before I started at UVA,” Nguyen admitted. “I did some soul searching about what I wanted to do for a career. I thought about a lot of things. I thought about being a lawyer because I love to read, and I thought about being a doctor. But I started going on these volunteer trips back to Vietnam where my parents are from and doing dental work there, and I kind of just began to seriously pursue it.”

She chose biology as her major because she thought it would be a good foundation for graduate studies in dentistry, but in her first semester at UVA, she discovered another subject that captured her interest.

“I ended up taking a statistics class my first semester,” Nguyen said. “It’s pretty much a standard stats class that’s required for the biology major, but I really fell in love with it, so I decided to be a stats major on top of my bio major.”

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That interest led her to start looking for a way to combine the two interests in a meaningful way. She started reaching out to faculty members, looking for research opportunities, and that led her to Gibson, an assistant professor in the College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Biology.

Gibson is an experimental biologist who studies infectious diseases, and she was interested in developing a type of study called a meta-analysis which relies heavily on statistics to combine and analyze data extracted from multiple scientific studies.

The question Gibson wanted to answer was: Does genetic variation prevent the spread of infectious diseases? The answer could help science understand how parasites evolve over time and help farmers understand the risks of planting monocultures. It could also help conservationists understand why endangered species are more susceptible to disease.

The concept isn’t a new one, Gibson explained, and biologists have long assumed that genetic variation is an important factor in keeping disease in check. “But we didn’t have the numbers to quantify the strength of the effect of genetic diversity,” Gibson said.

The work of developing the meta-analysis was exacting and challenging, and Gibson took a chance on Nguyen, who was only a first-year student when they started working on the study. However, Nguyen quickly became an indispensable part of the project.

“It’s not easy work. Ideally, you do meta-analysis with at least one partner, somebody who’s helping you do the work and also validating your work, and I ended up leaning pretty heavily on Anna,” Gibson said.

In November of last year, the paper, “Does Genetic Diversity Protect Host Populations From Parasites? A Meta‐Analysis Across Natural and Agricultural Systems,” was published by Evolution Letters with Gibson and Nguyen as co-authors, the first paper published by Gibson’s lab since she joined the UVA faculty shortly after Nguyen started at UVA.

Nguyen will graduate Saturday from the College of Arts & Sciences with majors in both biology and statistics and the added credential of being a published author. Her work with Gibson also won her a Robert Schwager Research Scholarship, which provides support to students involved in summer research projects; an Excellence in Undergraduate Research in Infectious Disease Award from UVA’s Global Infectious Disease Institute; and an award for a presentation about her work at the 2019 Southeastern Population Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics Conference.

But despite her accomplishments and her aptitude for tackling cutting-edge research challenges, her talents as a caregiver have helped her keep her goal of a career in dentistry in focus.

Outside of the classroom, Nguyen has served as an Honors support officer and adviser on the University’s Honor Committee, helping other students navigate the complexities of a unique system.

“The Honor System at the University is so unique, and it can be such a black box to people who haven’t had direct experience with Honor or are confused about it and don’t know what their options are or how the system really operates. So I came in, did a ton of training, and then I started taking on cases,” Nguyen said.

“At first, it takes an emotional toll on you when you know that a student’s educational career depends on your actions and your support, but it’s so necessary,” Nguyen said. “If it’s not you supporting the student, who will?”

Nguyen also worked as a volunteer at the Charlottesville Free Clinic, which provides health care to community members who otherwise could not afford it.

“I feel like sometimes we live in such like a bubble at UVA, where you’re on Grounds and you just shuttle from class to class and you never really experience the greater part of Charlottesville and the rest of the people who call this place home,” she said. “Being able to go out into the community and actually meet real Charlottesville residents and help them was really nice. Once a week, you’re like, ‘I don’t care about this essay or whatever; people have larger problems, and it’s not just about me.’”

This fall, Nguyen will head to the University of California, San Francisco, where she’ll begin her four-year study of dentistry. Getting into a highly ranked program like the one at UCSF seemed like a long shot, but she applied anyway and got in to not just UCSF, but every school she applied to.

She hasn’t exactly made up her mind what her graduate career will look like, but she knows it will include statistics in some way.

“I’m really interested in doing statistics and research in dental school. The main reason why I picked UCSF was because it is such a great research school. An especially large issue in dentistry is access to public health data, especially in rural areas, and how can we best distribute resources to underserved populations. If that’s something I could get involved in, that would be great,” Nguyen said.

“What I love about dentistry is the flexibility that it offers as a career,” she added. “You could just do clinical dentistry and you could open a practice, or you could choose to go the academic route and be a professor and teach dentistry. You can also do a mix of both where you work for a university and you have your clinical patients, but you also perform research on the side. There are so many options that I’m just going to go there and find out what I like. I’m definitely open-minded.”

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Russ Bahorsky

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