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Graduate uses biochemistry opportunities at ASU to forge a path to medical school

Graduating senior Connor Vuong will attend medical school at the University of Arizona this fall.

Connor Vuong, a graduating senior from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' School of Molecular Sciences, will attend medical school at the University of Arizona this fall.

April 25, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

For Connor Vuong, a senior in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University, a soccer injury in high school left him with a broken finger that needed surgery, and a newfound appreciation for what it really means to be a doctor.

“I was 15 and it was my first time needing surgery, so I was kind of scared — talking to the hand surgeon about the procedure and recovery was just an eye-opening moment for me,” he said. “It showed me that medicine isn't just about simply assessing symptoms, it's about focusing on patients as individuals and the stories they bring.”

From that moment, Vuong set his sights on his own medical path. He applied and was accepted to some of his top choices for pre-med programs, including Berkeley, Emory University and the University of Southern California.

But finding a way to fund almost a decade of education between undergraduate studies and medical school worried him. Growing up southeast of the Tempe campus in Ahwatukee, he saw ASU as the more affordable option in his backyard.

“My family comes from a pretty middle-class background, and after touring all three of those out-of-state campuses, I realized that college is more what you make it,” he said. “I felt like if I was motivated, I could achieve the same success here at ASU.”

This May, Vuong will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry from The College’s School of Molecular Sciences. And his motivation to find the opportunities to drive his career plans forward have paid off.

He spent three years working in the lab of Shengxi Chen, an associate research professor in the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Bioenergetics, where he researched how to improve early-detection testing methods for HIV and mentored younger student researchers.

As a Helios Scholar with the genomics research institute TGen, he now studies how the genetic codes of brain tumors can be used to develop more effective cancer treatments.

Vuong has also seized opportunities outside the lab. Competing yearly on The College’s Academic Bowl team, his team took first prize in three out of the four rounds he’s participated in.

This fall, his high school plans will come full circle when he heads to Tucson to attend medical school at the University of Arizona.

He answered a few questions about his time at ASU, where he’s headed next and the advice he has so far.

Question: What is something you learned while at at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise?

Answer: Beyond the research skills and techniques I've learned, I think I got a larger perspective on the many different fields in math and science. I was really fortunate to pursue biochemistry and medicinal chemistry specifically because I got to take classes that encompassed many different topics, even if they aren’t directly related to the things I’ll be doing later on in the medical field. Environmental science courses, biophysical labs, classes focused on quantum chemistry and mechanics — all of that was super interesting.

I think The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has fostered an environment where you get to experience a lot of different scientific perspectives that you wouldn't be able to if you were just fully focused on one area.  

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Shengxi Chen was instrumental in preparing me for research and medical school. He really believed in being open and asking questions. He encouraged people to understand why they were doing things, rather than just knowing how to do it in the first place.

In the classroom, Ian Gould and Kevin Redding both had lectures and exams that focused on applying knowledge instead of simply memorizing facts.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Anyone can just grind out their classes, get good grades and achieve academically that way.

But I believe it's way more important to distinguish yourself outside of your field and your grades, through extracurricular activities. And that’s not just in science, technology, engineering and math fields. If you're a journalist, try to apply for internships, for example. You should always look for extra opportunities to show that you're really passionate about the field you're going into, rather than just coasting by.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I actually prefer to study at home because I feel like it's a lot quieter, but I’m also partial to Noble Library. I like how late it's open and their quiet study rooms are very nice.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would try for one of the Millennium Prize Problems — a set of problems that carry a $1 million award if solved. They are the longest-standing questions we have in mathematics today.

Specifically, I would focus on the P vs. NPThe P vs. NP Problem questions whether all problems with quickly-verifiable solutions can also be solved quickly. If P = NP, then problems that appear very difficult would actually have relatively simple solutions. Scientists have grappled with the conundrum for decades.

Problem, which looks at whether there is a distinction between NP (non-polynomial) and P (polynomial) algorithms. If those two forms are proven to be the same, that changes everything that we know about encryption, protein folding or even the mathematics behind a perfect game of chess, because it means those things can be solved using a strong-enough computer.

That problem really does have implications in numerous fields, so it’d be really cool to solve it.

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