The Process of Discovery
According to Tran, Caltech’s culture helps students get to know each other—and themselves.
“It’s difficult to do a lot of the class assignments here on your own, and I think that’s by design,” she explains. “You get so in the habit of asking for help and being invited to collaborate that you get used to it. You come out of your shell, ready for new experiences.”
Being an introvert, Tran has found that she can use a science-minded approach to give herself an extra push when opportunities present themselves. “I love the kind of research where there are no right answers yet, so I sometimes think about that when I try new things—like talking to people at parties, participating in sports, going to a musical, or even grocery shopping in the middle of the night,” Tran says. “Even if you don’t get what you’re expecting, you get something. You learn something.”
In the interest of research, Tran, who is a recipient of the Wasserman Upper-Class Award scholarship, has embraced a gamut of opportunities to get the most out of student life at Caltech. She has played student housing-sponsored games of dodgeball, floorball, ping pong, soccer, and volleyball, and sung with the Caltech Glee Club.
“I’m pretty sure no one could be worse than me at dodgeball,” she says. “But rather than being afraid and never trying, I’ve come to realize that it’s fine not to be the best at everything.”
Tran has volunteered at Caltech’s Prefrosh Weekend as well as at social functions and admissions events. She also served as a liaison for Questbridge, a Palo Alto nonprofit that aims to help talented low-income students succeed in attending the country’s best colleges. As if that weren’t enough, this year, she joined the Caltech women’s swimming and diving team.
During the summer after her freshman year at Caltech, Tran participated in her first laboratory research project. Thanks to a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), she was able to work with Elliot Hui, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of California, Irvine, close to her family home.
Hui, who sometimes collaborates with Michael Elowitz, Caltech professor of biology and bioengineering, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and executive officer for biological engineering, designed a project in which Tran applied light-sensitive proteins to gene expression. “I learned that I enjoy being in the lab,” Tran says. “Even when I don’t understand everything they’re saying, it’s fun listening to people problem-solve and land on the next step.”
Finding lab work much to her liking, Tran spent the next summer participating in another SURF, this time on the Caltech campus. Under the advisement of Mikhail Shapiro, assistant professor of chemical engineering and Heritage Principal Investigator, she helped genetically engineer a bacterial protein that one day might be used to make a more versatile contrast agent for noninvasive ultrasound imaging.
“I love the abstract problem-solving process, where all of the steps haven’t been planned out by someone else,” Tran says. “I get to think for myself, ‘This happened, so what should I do next?’”
Referring to her experience both in and outside the lab, she adds, “What I love about research isn’t just the results—it’s the whole process of discovery.”