Please tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
I was born in a small town in Northern Vietnam 7 years after the Vietnam war ended. I was lucky that my parents invested in my education a lot. I still remember that I was the only one in my class who had all the necessary elementary school textbooks. I was the first one in my family to go to college at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi. I lived in Hanoi for 7 years before I went abroad to Austria for my PhD studies.
As a child, who was your biggest influence?
My parents were my biggest influence, especially my father who always told me that I needed to go to college to have a better life. My parents supported my dream to go abroad for school and never once complained that I did not visit home as frequently as other kids from my hometown.
You started your university studies in computer science. How did you become interested in biology and cancer?
I studied computer science in college because my father read in the newspaper that a computer programming degree could lead to a good job with a good salary. Besides, I was always good at Math in school. During my master’s degree studies in computer science, I became familiar with Bioinformatics. I was fascinated that bioinformaticians could use computer science algorithms to identify the patterns in biological data, especially with DNA sequences. Later, reading about DNA and its double helix structure inspired me to learn biology. After completing my PhD, I decided to do a postdoc in cancer genomics because most of the data generated at that time were from the cancer field, and I am always enthusiastic about studying data to uncover patterns. After working in cancer genomics and later in cancer immunology, I became highly motivated when I learned that my work with other scientists could contribute to the long journey of understanding the biology of cancer, which I believe will ultimately lead to curing cancer in the future.
What led you to the University of Vienna?
During college, I always wanted to go abroad to learn and see the world. I met one of my PhD supervisors (Dr. Arndt von Haeseler, a bioinformatics professor at the University of Vienna) when he gave a talk at a conference and taught a Bioinformatics course in Hanoi. I approached him and proposed that I could use one of the computational algorithms I learned to solve the phylogenetic tree reconstruction problem (to represent the evolutionary relationship among species based on their DNA or protein sequences) that he presented. He suggested that come to Austria for a PhD in Bioinformatics and introduced me to my other PhD supervisor (Dr. Ortrun Mittelsten Scheid, a plant biology professor at the Gregor Mendel Institute in Vienna) who was looking for someone to help analyze the epigenomic data in her lab. That was a unique opportunity as I had a chance to learn both bioinformatics and biology at one of the best research centers in Europe (Vienna BioCenter). In beautiful Vienna, I fell in love with biology and decided to pursue a science career.
Where did you carry out your postdoctoral research? Please tell us a little about that experience.
I did two postdocs, and both significantly contributed to shaping my science career. My first postdoc was with Dr. Benjamin Berman at the University of Southern California and Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where I learned how to do bioinformatics analysis with complex data like cancer. I did a second postdoc with Dr. Lynn Hedrick at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology because I wanted to learn more about immunology. Like many scientists, I am passionate about the idea that our immune system can be used to fight cancer. In Lynn’s lab, I learned so much about immunology and working in a wet lab, which I had never been exposed to before. I especially appreciate that she gave me a lot of freedom to explore what I really wanted to study. Before joining her lab, I knew almost nothing about immunology, and now my lab is studying cancer immunology using computational biology approaches.
What attracted you to Madison/McArdle?
I was attracted to UW-Madison because of the great potential to collaborate with many other groups here (as a faculty hire in the Human Precision Medicine Cluster). The opportunity to build a hybrid lab including a wet lab component and being a computational lab among other oncology labs in McArdle is tremendously exciting. The joint appointment with the department of Biostatistics and Biomedical Informatics gives me the opportunity to be in the interface of the two interdisciplinary fields. I have heard that UW-Madison students are outstanding, and now I have a great chance to work with those students from both biological and computational backgrounds. During my interview here, everyone spoke about the collaborative environment, which made it easier for me to make my decision to come here.
What is the focus of your research?
My research focus is to understand the immune system of cancer patients leveraging the high-throughput data and computational methods. Cancer immunotherapy has revolutionized cancer treatment and brought hope to patients with advanced disease. However, many patients do not have any clinical benefit from current treatments. We want to improve that by looking at the differences in the cellular makeup of patients’ immune systems between the ones who respond to immunotherapy and the ones who do not.
For someone interested in your research, please provide a reference to one or two relevant publications.
Published in Nature Genetics (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29610480/), we identified a signature of cellular age based on the data from DNA methylation, a cancer biomarker. In studies published in Immunity (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32814027/), we tracked back the early origins of neutrophils, the most abundant human blood cell-type, and interestingly found them only in the blood of cancer patients. Recent evidence shows that similar cell-types can be found in the severe Covid-19 patients, and we hope to make a connection with our discovery. My work has been highly collaborative and interdisciplinary, and I want to continue this in Madison.
What are you looking for in graduate students joining your laboratory?
I am particularly interested in working with next-generation scientists who are curious and enthusiastic about solving the puzzles of cancer data using high-throughput experimental and computational tools. I am looking for students who want to develop both experimental and bioinformatics skills.
What type of training environment do you wish to provide to new students/postdocs?
Students with biological backgrounds will have the opportunity to learn computational and bioinformatics analysis. We are now able to generate way more data than we can handle. My little son once asked me how I can contribute to curing cancer by staring at a computer monitor all day. He is correct that we need to do experiments and generate data, but I believe we need equal time if not more to crunch the data as well. Moreover, there is always something new we can learn data already published. I want to inspire computational students, who have the same background as mine, to become interested in biology and cancer as I did. I strongly believe that biomedicine and biotechnology are as attractive as what Silicon Valley can offer to students with good computational skills.
When you are not working, what do you like to do (hobbies/interests)?
I enjoy spending time with my wife and son in my free time. We talk about science and other interests. My son is very curious, and he asks so many questions that I often need to use google to answer him. I learn a lot from talking to them.