Mom's Ailment Inspires Trustees' Winner to Pursue Research
By Eric Breier
Kayla Nguyen knows first-hand the challenges that come with being a first-generation college student. For Nguyen, it’s occasionally compounded by being a first-generation American.
One of those challenges was trying to explain to her family why she is pursuing her Ph.D. after she graduates from Cal State San Marcos with a bachelor’s in biotechnology next May.
“It’s hard because I have to explain it in Vietnamese and I don't know any of the words for things like ‘grad school’ or ‘neuroscience research,’ those type of things,” said Nguyen, whose family immigrated from Vietnam in the 1980s. “No one ever says those things.”
Nguyen overcame that particular obstacle with some help from Google Translate. She has become adept at overcoming obstacles since graduating from high school seven years ago, when she had to juggle school and three jobs to help her ailing mother.
Nguyen is being recognized this week for her accomplishments with the 2020 Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, the California State University’s highest recognition of student accomplishment. Students are selected for demonstrating superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and financial need.
The CSU recognizes 23 students every year – one from each CSU campus – with the Trustees’ Award, which includes a donor-funded scholarship ranging from $6,000 to $15,000. Nguyen received a scholarship of $9,000 for being named a Hampton Scholar, bestowed upon the Trustee scholar who scored the third highest among all applicants.
Nguyen and other awardees will be recognized during a ceremony as part of the CSU Board of Trustees virtual meeting on Sept. 22.
“In my 17 years of mentoring students in my lab, Kayla is one of the most positive and hard-working students I have had the pleasure to mentor,” said biology professor Bianca Mothé. “She is always bringing new energy and ideas.”
Nguyen was inspired to pursue scientific research to help families like hers that are affected by uncurable diseases and disorders. Her mother, Kimlien, was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis soon after Nguyen graduated from Mira Mesa High School in 2013. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder that affects the lining of a person’s joints, causing painful swelling that can lead to bone erosion and joint deformity. In severe cases, it can affect a person’s internal organs.
Kimlien’s symptoms started with pain in her hands. She assumed it was the more common osteoarthritis, which is caused by mechanical wear and tear on the joints. But the family realized it was something more serious when it progressed from hand pain to Kimlien falling down stairs.
Although there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, medication can help manage the pain and inflammation. But Kimlien’s medication wasn’t covered by her health insurance, leading Nguyen to work three jobs and take a break from Miramar College to focus on her mom’s health and help with the $1,000 monthly medication costs.
When Nguyen returned to Miramar, a chemistry professor encouraged her to apply for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program, a year-long internship based at CSUSM in partnership with Miramar and MiraCosta colleges.
It wasn’t just Nguyen’s work in the program that stood out, but also her compassion for her colleagues.
“While she was a CIRM Bridges intern, their cohort experienced a traumatic event,” said Mothé, the program director. “Kayla was the first one to emerge with support for her fellow interns.
“Since being in my lab, she has developed her own project on a topic related to my specific expertise. She researched, thought through and brought the project to me. This is quite unique for an undergraduate. Kayla is the type of curious, motivated team player who brings me so much joy.”
Nguyen continued to gain research experience through internships in the academic lab of Lawrence S.B. Goldstein at UC San Diego last year and over the summer at Johnson & Johnson.
Throughout each internship, Nguyen’s peers and mentors stressed the importance of pursuing a graduate degree.
“I kept hearing that and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I need to work now. I need to make money now because it's not OK the way that we're living,’ ” Nguyen said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, but in the long run, you don't want to be someplace and hit a ceiling because don't have the degree.’ ”
Nguyen took the advice to heart and started exploring what it would mean to attend graduate school. In the process, she learned about CSUSM’s TRIO McNair Scholars Program, which prepares low-income, first-generation undergraduates and undergraduates from underrepresented groups for graduate school.
McNair Scholars are expected to have a commitment to pursuing a graduate degree, something Nguyen still wasn’t completely sold on when she began the application process. But the McNair team – including director Denise Garcia, assistant director Ray Malfavon-Borja and adviser Vicky Yan – explained that the program’s research opportunities would help Nguyen become more confident in her abilities while simultaneously lessening her financial burden through a program stipend.
“It ended up really changing my life and changing my perspective,” she said. “Being around all these other phenomenal students who work really, really hard and are in similar situations as I am – also first-generation college students – I realized, ‘OK, I'm not alone.’ They really inspired me and helped me realize that if they can do it, I can do it.”
As part of the McNair program, Nguyen will apply to at least 10 graduate programs. She is hoping to stay local – the Scripps Research Institute is among her top choices – to remain close to her mother and grandmother. But a university in Oregon, where her father, sister, brother-in-law and nephew live, is another possibility.
Regardless of where she lands, Nguyen now has the confidence to take that next step.
“I'm really grateful for all these experiences that really shaped my perspective of life,” she said. “And I feel really grateful that I'm on a path where I'm passionate about all the things that I do. I feel like that's really a blessing for me.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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