Thao was awarded the 2008 Goldwater Scholarship for her research project at Virginia Tech, which focuses on the synthesis of nanoprisms for cancer therapy. As an NIH-OxCam Scholars she continued her research at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oxford with a doctorate thesis, which describes how HIV-1 travels from blood cells to brain cells using fluorescent and 3D electron microscopy.
“The Goldwater application was one of the few instances in my life when I’m asked to reflect on my goals and talk about the awesomeness of science! I loved having a committee of super smart scientists, who carefully read my thoughts about how we can advance medicine. It is such a privilege to have an audience and I am very grateful for the generosity of their time and attention.”
When Thao was doing her Ph.D., she loved reconstructing hundreds of electron microscopy images into 3D models and then 3D-printing them into sculptures. It’s such a fun and novel way to share the magical world of biology with others.
Today, Thao works as the Education and Academia Program Manager at 23andMe, where she creates innovative educational content. This year, she wrote a Genetics 101 booklet and created a student magazine “The DNA Decoder” with a team of students from across the nation. She is also designing an interactive learning app by incorporating interesting video game elements from classic games like Zelda, Super Smash Bros, and Sonic. She is currently directing the creation of a series of children’s books and designing a virtual reality experience, where the viewers can travel inside the human body.
What she loves about genetics is that it is one of the few scientific fields that can bring people together. People from different ethnic backgrounds, fields of study, geographic regions, backgrounds…We are all connected. Genetics is the link.
When Thao is not working, she is training to be a certified private pilot. Flight training has been a challenging journey, from memorizing aviation regulations, learning new aviation language, understanding meteorology and weather patterns, to performing emergency maneuvers under time pressure. She is regularly challenged to step into her fears and strengthen her mind, body, and spirit. To help her process her experiences, she is writing a book called “Courage in Flight: Act with creative confidence in the face of uncertainty.”
“At the end of the day, I always follow my fun. I do what I’m most curious about and I do it with all of my heart. I think science could use a little more heart and soul. We should execute with technical competence but make decisions with heart-felt confidence. I want to bring more joy and aliveness into science. I want to share the love of science, the love of humanity, the love of simply being alive, with the world.”