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Vietnamese doctoral student makes his mark at Harvard

Sunday, May 31, 2020, 16:04 GMT+7
Vietnamese doctoral student makes his mark at Harvard
Cao Bao Anh, a Vietnamese doctorate student at Harvard University, gestures beside his book, ‘The Story of Our Immune System,‘ in this provided photo.

In addition to his research, Cao Bao Anh has authored a book on the human immune system which is credited with helping its readers cope both physically and emotionally with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

For Anh, a young Vietnamese national working on his doctorate at Harvard University, immunology is a lifelong calling and an outlet for giving back to the community

Anh, 28, has come a long way from his hometown in Dong Nai Province, southern Vietnam. 

After finishing his undergraduate studies as a valedictorian at a Canadian university, he earned himself a spot in the immunology PhD program at Harvard. 

Throughout his years of academic success, Anh has maintained the notion that education is key to helping others and giving back to the community.

The opportunity of a lifetime

Anh’s first exposure to medical science came in his senior year of high school when he volunteered to help out at a stem cell laboratory at the University of Science under the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City.

It was during this volunteer experience that a mentor explained to Anh that “immunology is the key to modern medicine” — an idea which would drive the majority of future academic decisions.

Shortly after, Anh was awarded a Vietnamese government-sponsored scholarship to study at the University of Toronto in Canada where he had the opportunity to attend a talk by revered immunology expert Professor Bebhinn Treanor.

The summer after his freshman year, Anh moved into a youth homeless shelter near the campus to save money so that he could afford the summer courses he needed to qualify for Prof. Treanor’s introductory immunology course meant for third-year students.

“Looking back, I think I was much more of a risk taker then, perhaps because I was certain I would be successful,” Anh said in an interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.

Set on pursuing a doctorate at Harvard, he decided to work on a master’s degree with Prof. Treanor despite receiving PhD offers from several other schools after graduating from his university as a valedictorian.

Working with Prof. Treanor, he felt, would be his best shot for a future at Harvard.

“It turned out to be the toughest period of my education because doing research really isn’t easy. Instead of picking myself up after a failure, I found myself wallowing in pity. Those were my darkest times,” Anh shared. 

He began studying psychology to better understand his issues and then regained a mental balance.

“My internal crisis didn’t stop me from applying to Harvard, my long-time dream,” he explained.

And that perseverance paid off in the form of a letter of acceptance into Harvard’s doctoral program.

“I always try my best to go after what I want and seek out help when there is a problem which I can’t sort out on my own,” he explained of his success.

Currently, his research interests include the developmental and evolutionary aspects of immunology. 

These interests and the lessons he has learned on the journey toward making them a career are the inspiration behind his book, ‘The Story of Our Immune System’ — a read which has been enthusiastically embraced by Vietnamese readers amid the fight against COVID-19, thanks to its simplified explanations of the complex human body.

“After devouring books from Oopsy, a Vietnamese community of psychologists and psychotherapists, I realized a well-written book can change lives. I wanted to do the same by penning a book on the human body and immune system,” Anh said.

"Humans have three interrelated and codependent components — our body, our psychology, and our rationality," the researcher said.

"If one is out of whack, the others will be, too.

“We tend to take our body for granted.

"Self-harm habits such as drinking and smoking not only cause physical illnesses but also plunge  us into disruptive psychological patterns.

"My book is intended for everyone to teach these concepts to everyone, even those with little prior knowledge on the topic."

Such efforts have been well received by the community.

“I told Anh to write his book for the community’s sake instead of his own reputation. He spent a lot of time on the piece and heeded our advice,” Nguyen Thi Nhan, an author and translator for Oopsy, lauded her colleague.

Cao Bao Anh (second row, center) at a seminar titled ‘Suc khoe cam xuc’ (Emotional Health) organized by Oopsy, a Vietnamese psychology group in Hanoi, Vietnam in January, 2020 in this photo provided by Oopsy.

Cao Bao Anh (second row, center) stands at a seminar titled ‘Suc khoe cam xuc’ (Emotional Health) organized by Oopsy, a Vietnamese psychology group in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 2020 in this photo provided by Oopsy.

 A proud Vietnamese

Anh topped his cellular and molecular biology cohort at the University of Toronto in 2015 with a 4.0 GPA after receiving a scholarship from the Vietnamese government four years earlier.

He was also the recipient of the 2015 John Black Aird award for the top student at the University of Toronto, as well as a Governor General’s Silver Medal for being one of the university’s most academically outstanding graduates.

He has been working on his doctoral degree in immunology at Harvard University on a full-time scholarship since late 2017.

On top of an already exemplary academic profile, Anh has proven to be a leader outside of the classroom.

In addition to fulfilling a role as an academic programmer and promoter in residence, he also works as a teaching assistant and a course facilitator at the University of Toronto.

In his spare time, he works with patients coping with terminal illness as a volunteer palliative care worker with Hospice Toronto. 

Prof. Treanor once told The Star, Canada's largest online news site, that she was taken aback when Anh, then a sophomore, sent her a solution to one of her laboratory’s problems which she had described to him just one day prior.

She said she was shocked that Anh was able to see right through to the core of the issue and share his ideas with great dedication.

The Star was also impressed when Anh proudly wrapped himself in a Vietnamese flag after receiving his degree at a graduation ceremony at the University of Toronto in 2015.  

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Ngoc Hanh - Kim Thoa / Tuoi Tre News

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