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Outstanding grad pursues passion for healing, serving others

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.

May 01, 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.

“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.

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