Thanh Phan is a third-year doctoral student in biochemistry and biophysics. She is an international student from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and received her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Kalamazoo College. Currently, under the guidance of Dr. Brian Kuhlman, she is working on developing vaccine antigens against dengue viruses. “I hope to contribute to the field and be a part of the cure for this global epidemic,” she says.
What made you choose UNC-Chapel Hill when deciding on a program/place to study?
I chose UNC-Chapel Hill because the research fits my interest and I really appreciate the collaborative environment not only within the university but also with other institutions. In addition, I think Chapel Hill/Carrboro is a nice area to live, with a lot of opportunities for post-graduation.
Tell us about your research.
I am in the lab of Dr. Brian Kuhlman, who is an expert in the protein design software Rosetta. For my research, we are, with the help of Rosetta, remodeling the envelope protein which coats the surface of dengue viruses. Immune response directed towards this protein can provide protection against dengue. However, this response needs to be directed to specific regions of the protein in order to be highly effective. We are working on re-engineering the envelope proteins so that they can evoke protective antibodies when used as vaccine antigens. We plan to test their ability to protect against the dengue virus in different forms (soluble proteins or nanoparticles) starting with mouse studies. Dengue is a global epidemic affecting populations all over the world, especially in sub-tropical areas. There are hundreds of millions of dengue infections each year, some result in severe diseases such as hemorrhagic fever and shock syndrome and can even lead to fatalities. Currently, there is only one FDA-approved vaccine for dengue, which is not completely protective. Hence, it is crucial that we can develop a good vaccine for dengue as soon as possible.
What does it mean to be a first-generation graduate student in your family?
As a first-generation graduate student, I often find myself trying to explain to my parents what I do or why I am working at late hours. Since my family is not familiar with graduate school, it can be stressful to provide a timeline for graduation. However, I would be the first to receive a doctorate-level education. My family is proud of me, and I look forward to being able to support them in the future.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your Carolina degree?
I hope to be able to find a job that matches my research interest and also to become more well-rounded as a candidate. Although I am unsure whether I will work in academia or industry, I would like to continue doing research after I receive my Ph.D. degree. I would like to work in a collaborative and stimulating environment and be a part of a team that focuses on the research and development of products. Ideally, I want to incorporate the protein engineering software Rosetta in my future work and be more involved in the Rosetta community.