Outstanding grad pursues passion for healing, serving others

May 1, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Arizona State University graduate Robert Nguyen has long had a love of the sciences, particularly the living world. Robert Nguyen outdoors Robert Nguyen, who majored in applied biological sciences at ASU Polytechnic campus, is the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Outstanding Graduate among bachelor's graduates in spring 2020. He looks forward to a career in medicine. Download Full Image

“In my AP biology class my senior year of high school, it was learning about all the minute details and complex interconnections that support and allow life to exist that pulled me into this path,” said Nguyen, who majored in applied biological sciences at ASU’s Polytechnic campus as preparation to pursue a career in healing and medicine. 

The Gilbert, Arizona, native is being recognized as the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Outstanding Graduate among bachelor’s degree graduates at ASU Commencement 2020. He earned a 4.0 GPA and — beyond his commitments to his studies — devoted a great deal of time in research and volunteering in service to help others.

Nguyen generously supported the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Dean’s Office as a student ambassador, helping with recruiting, orientation events and campus visits. He was active in the Pre-Health Club at the Polytechnic campus, participating in many community service events, including Devils in Disguise, the Travis Mannion 9/11 Heroes Run, Relay for Life and the campus blood drives.  

He was also involved in International Service Devils, contributing more than 250 hours of volunteer service in the Valley and beyond. He and fellow applied biological sciences senior Tanner Carr initiated the Polytechnic campus effort that collected more than 1,200 pairs of gently used shoes for Andre House, a house of hospitality for the homeless. During spring breaks, Nguyen traveled abroad with International Service Devils to support community projects and youth health education in remote areas of Guatemala.  

”This club opened my eyes to how we can work together to help others in need,” he observed. 

Over the last two years, Nguyen has been making significant research contributions working in the lab of chemistry professor Wenwei Zheng at the Polytechnic campus.  

“Professor Zheng is one of the most influential instructors and mentors that I had while at ASU. When I first came to him, I essentially had zero background in coding or scientific research, just pure determination and an urge to dive into a research project,” Nguyen said. “He was generous enough to give me a chance to join his research group.”

The lab’s research uses computational biology to learn more about the traits, pathology and functions of Intrinsically disordered proteins, which perform important biological functions and are related to a number of neurodegenerative diseases. 

“The first few months, I gruelingly learned the basics of coding, programming and the essentials of his research. I hit many roadblocks while learning and practicing,” Nguyen admitted. “He taught me patience and persistence in seemingly impossible situations. While he could have easily given me the answers to my problems, he gifted time and guidance to try countless options to find the solution on my own. I’ve learned that any problem that may present itself to me in the future can be worked out with patience and persistence.” 

Nguyen is co-author on a manuscript about the research project, which stands to disrupt current thought on these proteins within the biophysics community.

“To some, graduating from college is about the diploma, but to me, it’s more about the knowledge and mindset that I developed. I’ve learned how to be more critical in my thought process. This is a superior way of tackling any problems that come my way,” he said.

“I also appreciate the support system that this school has given me. From day one, the academic advisers set me up for success and kept me on track to graduate. Later on, countless professors and instructors at Poly showed they cared for me as a student and wanted to see me succeed,” Nguygen said. “I graduate knowing that I have a network of brilliant people who believe in me and my abilities to become successful and who are willing to offer assistance if needed.”  

Nguygen shared some additional reflections about his ASU journey.

Question: Why did you choose ASU and the Polytechnic campus?

Answer: My father graduated with his bachelor’s from ASU. I still remember seeing a photo of myself, most likely only a few years old at the time, being held in my father’s hands at his graduation. He has always supported and pushed me academically, so I wanted to graduate from ASU, just like he did, and continue a proud ASU heritage.  

I chose to be based at the Polytechnic campus because it was incomparably unique to any other campus, in my eyes. When I first visited the campus, there were so many things that caught my attention: from the beautiful scenery to the blissfully quiet paths. But the main thing that attracted me and has kept me to this day is the people. With the great student-to-instructor/staff ratio and the friends that I hold dear, I think that the Polytechnic campus has given me relationships that will last a lifetime.

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

A: Just take a minute to yourself and breathe! As a student, I almost always felt that I wasn’t doing enough and that I was in a crunch for time. It would feel like I was under a constant weight that wasn’t going anywhere. It’s more than okay to rest your mind for a bit when you’re overwhelmed. Distract yourself by spending quality time with friends and family and by remembering what you’re truly working toward.

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

A: Personally, my favorite “all-in-one” spot on the Polytechnic campus has to be the library. I probably spent the majority of my time at the library and my many friends would say that I arguably spent too much time there. I was always able to find a nice quiet place to study by myself or spend time and talk with friends. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan to apply to several medical schools to hopefully begin my journey as a physician. In the meantime, I would like to continue to work, volunteer and shadow.

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

A: I would love to fund medical research and healthcare centers that provide for those in poverty. Especially now, it is evident that we still have a lot to learn about human health. I believe that having a larger foundation of knowledge could be a large step in solving a variety of health-related ailments at reasonable and affordable prices. It is also clear to see that health care can be very disproportional to those that cannot afford it. I would like to close that gap in any way possible, especially supporting the facilities that treat the less fortunate.

Maureen Roen

Manager, Creative Services, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


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Learning to garden — online?

May 1, 2020

ASU gardening Instructor Deborah Thirkhill has found unique advantages to conducting her physical activity class virtually

The joys of gardening: head in the sun, hands in the dirt, something living where nothing lived before, and finally the crunch and snap and taste of what you and nature have created together. Indeed one of life’s pleasures, and one worth learning and teaching.

But how do you teach it online? It’s not exactly calculus or ancient Roman history.

One Arizona State University instructor has cracked that problem, and it’s not only successful — it’s turning out to have some advantages no one expected.

Deborah Thirkhill, a program coordinator for the Ground Services Arboretum, teaches PPE 240: Gardening, a Physical Activity Course offered by the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. It's usually two classes per semester with 20 students each at the Tempe campus student garden on the south side of the Social Sciences Building.

Here’s how it normally works:

The class splits into groups of four. Each group has its own 8-foot-by-4-foot plot. They can grow anything they want, but usually they grow radishes because radishes mature in 27 days, Thirkhill said.

“I teach them how to garden in the desert,” she said.

They prepare the soil, learn about additives and compost, plant their seeds, put together a simple irrigation system and learn how to water and weed. Thirkhill teaches them about the two desert growing seasons: cool and hot. There’s some botany in there too.

“We can just about garden year-round, even in the hot summer, and get certain types of heat-loving plants to grow,” she said. “They have to grow something and harvest it by the end of class,” she said. “They can pull up a ripe radish ready to go and they have to eat it. Sometimes we chop it up and make a little salad or whatever. Everybody can taste their radishes.” 

Now the class is a different experience.

“We’re learning basically the same things, but they have the little Jiffypot gardens with 12 little plugs,” she said.

First, the students come to the Tempe campus to see what it looks like. “I even offered them to harvest a potato or whatever they found in there.” Then they pick up a gardening kit with seeds and a Jiffy planter.

“Online I’ve been showing them how to start the seeds,” Thirkhill said. “Some of them have never touched soil before. They don’t even know how to plant seeds, so I show them how to plant seeds. The tiny seeds you just barely work into the top of the soil; you just press them in. The bigger seeds, like okra, you push down to your first knuckle.”

Thirkhill started with Zoom, but there was so much she wanted to show them she couldn’t work it in. Now she films and posts videos on Vimeo. Then she takes questions.

“They like to contact me live,” she said. “They call me, they text me, they email me with their questions and photographs. Some of them like to talk a lot, I think to maintain contact with somebody. I answer them immediately. I think that’s really important. I’ve been having a blast.”

Thirkhill doesn’t keep office hours. She answers questions immediately, no matter what time of day they come in. She has responded to gardening questions at 10 p.m.

Out of her 20-student classes, as many as 12 to 15 are usually from China. They’re from urban places.

“They’ve never picked up a seed before,” she said. “They’re really divorced from nature. They’ve been the ones who are the most interested.”

Going online has had some unexpected benefits. Before, when she was teaching in person, if students didn’t recognize something or understand something, it passed over their heads. Now they have time to pause and look up an image or a term on the Internet.

“I think the communication is better,” she said. “Now I’m finding out what they’re not understanding. It’s clearer to me what’s falling through the gaps of what I’m trying to communicate to them about gardening.”

Many of her students are studying engineering or technical business subjects like supply chain management. They’re crunching numbers and studying differential equations in their other classes.

In her class, “they come and they can just kick back, relax, get their hands in the dirt, putter around in a garden, and do a little weeding,” she said. “They said mentally it’s so relaxing to take this class. That’s what I wanted it to be all about — make gardening fun and relaxing.”

The only thing missing is gardening’s conviviality. “You strike up friendships when you garden, anywhere you do it,” she said. “They become your social group. That’s the only thing that’s lacking.”

Never in Thirkhill’s wildest dreams did she imagine taking the class online would work out this well.

“They’re in full control of these little organisms and if they make mistakes, that’s OK,” she said. “They can plant more seeds. Don’t worry about it. I think that’s the main thing right there.”

Janet Barrone-Curry is the Physical Activity Course program coordinator for the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She said she thought they could adapt their whole curriculum to an online format.

"I never doubted that we could pull off in such a short amount of time what seemed to be an insurmountable task; adapting 64 physical activity courses to an online format,” she said. “I put my faith in our MLFTC faculty associates and in our students and did not look back. Now our students are receiving knowledge based instruction, real-time Zoom feedback and critiques from masters in their fields. Our mantra? 'We got this!'"

Top photo: Instructor Deborah Thirkhill tends the garden on the south side of the Social Sciences building on April 21, 2020. Students in her gardening class would generally be managing their plots there, but as with all other university classes, it is now online. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News