Fulbright Awardee seeks to connect with her roots and make an impact on the Vietnamese Deaf community

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Fourth-year computational & systems biology undergraduate researcher Elise Ỷ-lan Tran (Alexandrova group) has been awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Program scholarship for 2024-2025 to visit Vietnam for ten months to conduct her own research project aimed at assisting the Deaf community.  Tran is eager to apply principles of physics to delve into human biology, with the goal of aiding members of a community that is dear to her. 

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program through an annual appropriation made by Congress. Fulbright recipients are selected based on academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields. The program operates in more than 140 countries worldwide.

Tran’s project aims to support the Deaf community in Vietnam from both scientific and humanitarian perspectives by deepening our understanding of GJB2 mutations to advance the medical field, paired with direct involvement with Deaf organizations in Vietnam to promote the accessibility of resources for those with hearing loss. 

“This project is truly a culmination of who I am, from the research work that I will be doing, to connecting even further with my own Vietnamese culture, and continuing to be involved with the Deaf community in Vietnam.”  

Elise Ỷ-lan Tran

Tell us what the application process was like:

I first heard about the Fulbright program when I was looking for gap year opportunities. Once I learned that I would have the opportunity to draft a proposal and conduct my own research project in a country of my choice, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. In a lot of gap year programs, there is a project or general topic area that is already established, but I truly loved being able to build a research proposal specific to my experiences and what I want to do.  I started searching for research labs that specialized in employing molecular dynamics to investigate biomedical research questions, which I hope to do in the future.  

When I was looking at all of these computational chemistry and biophysics programs, there were a host of labs in countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, that very closely matched what I did. One of the most integral aspects of the Fulbright experience and application process is having a deep understanding of why that specific country. I kept trying to think of ways to rationalize “Why Germany? Why Switzerland?” but other than the research labs being there, I found myself struggling. So, when I was reflecting on what country I really wanted to live in and truly experience, separate from research, the answer for me was clearly Vietnam, the country of my heritage. From there, I shaped my research project to be specific to Vietnamese people and the culture. I think what was really important was ensuring that I would not be able to conduct my research in any other country; it had to be Vietnam. 

In terms of writing the proposal, I did an extensive literature review of and formulated my project based on research gaps I found. Once I honed in on my question, I drafted my proposal and sent it to my mentors, Dr. Anastassia Alexandrova and Dr. Derek Urwin, to review. Once I had my first draft completed, I cold emailed research labs in Vietnam that specifically did molecular dynamics research. I was grateful to connect with Dr. Son Tung Ngo and discuss how we can build off of each other’s experience and have the project thrive under my experience paired with his expertise.

My project and ability to draft my own proposal would not have been possible without the continuous support of my mentors, Dr. Alexandrova and Dr. Urwin. In my lab, I have completed a lot of independent work, which prepared me for both the application and my endeavors next year. In addition, the support of my Undergraduate Science Journal mentor, Dr. Jorge Avila, has been invaluable to experience within research. Lastly, the Fulbright Program Advisor at UCLA, Jane Sin, helped me carve the proposal and offered insightful feedback that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Although I am completing an independent project, it is the support and encouragement from the people surrounding me that have allowed for my success. 

Tell us about the research you will conduct in Vietnam: 

In Vietnam, the high frequency of GJB2 mutations is a major contributor to deafness being one of the most common genetic disorders. My project analyzes how the most common GJB2 mutations in the Vietnamese population affect cell communication in the ear. With my extensive computational biophysics background and the unwavering support and expertise of Dr. Son Tung Ngo at Ton Duc Thang University in the Biophysics Laboratory, my time in Ho Chi Minh City will lend additional insight into hearing loss, along with a manuscript for publication by the end of the Fulbright grant. I am eager to utilize physics to explore the biology of our body for a community dear to me. My immersion in Deaf culture in the U.S. and education in the barriers faced by Deaf people inspired me to undertake this project in a country not only whose Deaf population experiences similar challenges, and often to a higher degree, but is also the place of my roots and my family. Ultimately, my project aims to support families from both a scientific and humanitarian perspective by deepening our understanding of GJB2 mutations to advance the medical field paired with direct involvement with Deaf organizations in Vietnam to promote the accessibility of resources for those with hearing loss.

How did you get involved in that research area?: 

When I was just scrolling on social media, I found a video about American Sign Language (ASL) and decided to learn. I began by learning from free online lessons posted by a Deaf professor, Dr. Bill Vicars, via his website. I ended up spending all of my time during quarantine learning a new language and I couldn’t have had a better experience. I became involved with many online Deaf and ASL community groups, practicing and conversing with Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people, as well as other ASL students. I would participate in video calls on a daily basis, just connecting with people online and finding such a lively community. This experience also helped me learn about Deaf culture and Deaf pride. I have not only learned a language, but have become more culturally aware and cognizant of how my actions as a hearing person can impact Deaf people. With my work in Vietnam, one of the most important aspects to me, outside of doing the science and the research, is to be a part of advocating for Deaf Vietnamese children to learn Vietnamese Sign Language (VSL). Language deprivation is a large issue for Deaf children, throughout the world, where they don’t have access to learning sign language. So, in Vietnam, I not only want to do research, but also be involved with Deaf organizations that promote VSL and be able to properly utilize my privilege as a hearing person. 

I especially felt connected to this issue of language deprivation, because my own elementary school discouraged me from learning Vietnamese in order to improve my English. Vietnamese is my first language, since I grew up in a household with my parents and my grandma, who all emigrated from Vietnam. Because Vietnamese was noted on school forms as my first language, I had to take English summer programs and extra examinations, despite being able to read better than some of my peers. After my grandma moved out and I started focusing on school, I soon stopped learning and practicing Vietnamese during my primary developmental years to focus on English. Eventually, I lost a lot of my ability to speak my language, one that is so inextricably tied to who I am, my culture, and my ancestry. I am doing a lot better practicing my Vietnamese, but I know I will reach a level of fluency that I would have never achieved once I live in Vietnam for 10 months. 

I also joined the ASL club at UCLA, Hands On. This is a space where ASL signers, whether you’re a complete beginner or a native speaker, can converse and hang out with one another. The club is also open to the greater community. One of my favorite annual events that I recently attended was the DeafNation Expo in Pasadena, which features Deaf performers, vendors, and more. More information can be found here: https://deafnation.com/expo/2024-deafnation-expo-pasadena-ca/

I used this experience to inform what I wanted to do for my project in Vietnam. This project is truly a culmination of who I am, from the research work that I will be doing, to connecting even further with my own Vietnamese culture, and continuing to be involved with the Deaf community in Vietnam. 

Also fun fact: ASL is closely related to French Sign Language (LSF) and VSL is also influenced by sign language. 

Tell us about your research in the Alexandrova Lab:

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) is a class of compounds produced by thermal decomposition of organic material, which can be found in many places from engine exhaust to forest fire smoke. PAHs have the ability to intercalate itself into DNA creating a DNA-PAH adduct that can stack between DNA bases, forming p-p-stacking bonds, and stabilizing the DNA. Thus, when DNA-PAH adducts are energetically favorable and have stable conformations, this leads to resistance of nucleotide excision repair resulting in cancer promoting effects in the genome. In this research project, the favorability of DNA-PAH adducts disrupting the genome will be compared amongst two different gene sequence contexts, NRAS and HRAS, both of which are associated with carcinogenic mutations. These RAS genes are considered to be genomic hotspots for carcinogenesis, since these are part of the family of genes related to the regulation of cell growth and death. The genotoxicity of the PAHs will be further elucidated by determining the relative binding free energy for a protein involved with global genomic nucleotide excision repair when bound to the DNA-PAH adduct.This will give insight to how different PAHs are relatively resistant to repair and if different gene sequence contexts contribute to the resistance. The long-term goal is to provide an update to the current classification of known human carcinogens in order to better serve the public, and especially those working in occupations with high exposure to PAHs.

What other groups are you involved with at UCLA? 

I have also served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief for the UCLA Undergraduate Science Journal (USJ) for the past two years. I have been involved in USJ all four years and it has been integral to my decision to pursue research in the future. I love seeing how passionate our staff members and authors are about science and being able to witness the whole publication process from submission and review, to editing, to even utilizing Adobe InDesign to layout the whole journal. We print the journals to share with the UCLA community and I think there is just something so precious and unique about having a printed journal that we’ve worked on throughout the year in my hands. I’m excited to say that our 37th issue is available beginning Week 10 and can be found in libraries and academic offices. 

What else would you like us to know about you?

In Vietnam, I plan to use my Vietnamese name: Ỷ-lan. This name is used by my family, family friends, and anyone I know from the Vietnamese community. A lot of my parent’s friends here in the U.S. actually don’t even know my English name!

Article by Zhuoying Lin and Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry. Contact: penny@chem.ucla.edu.