Tho Nguyen
Photo: Annika Söderpalm

Hopes to contribute something to the bigger picture


The pharmacist Tho Nguyen used to work in a clinical lab for tropical diseases in Vietnam. She realized that she was working with analytical chemistry without really knowing much about it. Now she is a doctoral student in the subject at the University of Gothenburg.

The journey from Vietnam went by way of a Master’s degree in Tartu, Estonia and in Uppsala. Once she had completed this degree, she had three choices. One was to return to the lab in Vietnam, where her boss was waiting with open arms. Another was to apply for jobs in Swede, and a third was to apply for a doctoral position.

She heard about a team focused on neuroscience, which interested her. And a doctoral position had just been advertised with the group.
“I applied for it, a job at a restaurant, and another at AstraZeneca. The first one to get back in touch was the University of Gothenburg. As a pharmacist, I didn’t think I would get the position but I did, and it made me really happy since I looked up to the doctoral students in Uppsala and wanted to be one of them,” says Tho with a laugh.

Doing research on how cells communicate through chemical signals

She looked forward to learning lots of new things, such as STED microscopy, a type of very high resolution microscopy, a technique that was recognized with a Nobel prize in 2014. Her project deals with how cells communicate through chemical signals. More specifically, how exocytosis works, i.e. the process that makes vesicles, the small structures in cells, empty their contents into cells.
“These basic mechanisms play a role in neurological diseases. Exocytosis also has other important functions, like releasing insulin from beta cells in the pancreas. Even if my results don’t lead to a cure to a disease, I hope that they will be important for other research groups. Many concerted efforts are needed, and my project can be a small step in major advances.”

PhD Student Tho Nguyen working in the lab
Tho Nguyen studies the communication of cells. She mostly uses cells with vesicles that primarily contain dopamine.
Photo: Annika Söderpalm

She felt that the first two years as a doctoral student were difficult.
“You have to get a lot of course credits, and it takes time to get into a project and learn new techniques. All while also having to teach. You have to prepare and you have to correct lab reports, which was something entirely new for me.”
It’s starting to get easier, but she says that it is a challenge to plan her time well.

Several advantages of being a doctoral student in Sweden

If she compares, Sweden is better than other countries to be a doctoral student in.
“As a doctoral student in Swede, you are employed while also having the opportunity to develop. There’s also a lot of support from the University, for example, help with funding for conferences.”

Another advantage with Sweden is that practically everyone is very good at English.
“It was worse in Tartu. There, you had to speak Estonian. Or maybe Russian, but it didn’t help that much.”

Tho is surprised at how multicultural Gothenburg is. When she misses noddle soup, it’s no problem finding both good Vietnamese restaurants and Asian shops that have everything. She feels she has a healthier lifestyle here.

“In Vietnam I never cooked food. It was easier to buy something to eat on the way home from work and usually it was something unhealthy. Here I do like my friends; I go to the gym, I walk and I cook my own food. In Vietnam, there’s more social life and the days pass quickly. Here you have more time to yourself, which can be lonely. At the same time, you discover your own thoughts. I have realized that I actually can, and enjoy, spending time with myself.”

In the future, Tho wants to continue researching, either within academia or industry. Maybe do a post doc, but then she has to convince her partner and soon to be husband to join her.

Tho Nguyen

Is: Doctoral student in analytical chemistry
Born: Grew up in Dong Ha in Vietnam
Age: 29
Interesting facts: Has sewn her own wedding dress and in April will travel home to Vietnam to get married to her partner Johan.