By Micaela Myers
When University of Wyoming graduate student Diem Thu Pham won the UW International Board of Advisors Student Internationalization Excellence Award in 2012 for her work studying the impact of Agent Orange in Vietnam, she met many other UW students conducting important research overseas, inspiring her to create the International Research Showcase at UW in November 2013.
“I thought it would be a good chance for UW students doing research abroad to share experiences and listen to what others are doing,” she says. “Often when you do international research it’s interdisciplinary, so you can always learn from other people’s research.”
The two-day showcase featured presentations from eight UW students doing international research, including Abdullahi Hussein Ali, who is working to save the world’s most endangered antelope in Kenya; Brigid Grund offering ethnoarchaeological insights into the household demography of nomadic peoples; and Dianbing Chen’s research into multicultural education in China.
“I had an amazing experience organizing this and listening to other people’s research,” Thu Pham says. “I wanted to do this showcase not just for us graduate students doing research but also for undergraduate students to learn how involved UW is in terms of diversity—not only in educational courses and study abroad, but in research.”
After earning her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees from UW, Thu Pham, who is originally from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is now studying for her doctorate in zoology and physiology.
“My research is dealing with Agent Orange usage during the Vietnam War and its effect on human health, especially on Vietnamese residents who are living on or near the contaminated sites,” she explains. “In my master’s, I studied the risk factors and what people were doing every day that would increase their risk of exposure to dioxin. For my Ph.D., I hope to understand the effects of dioxin in human health that carry on for multiple generations. Dioxin might lower birth weight in children, which then increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. So I’m hoping that if we figure this out, maybe we can get more funding from NGO (non-governmental organization) programs to help these women get proper prenatal care.
“I should give credit to a lot of professors that got me to where I am,” Thu Pham adds. “I started my degree in chemical engineering with a minor in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. I took the course Human Systems Physiology with Margaret Flanigan Skinner (director of the Ellbogen Center for Teaching and Learning). She was amazing. She put a perspective on how working in health care is very important. It changed my mind and changed my direction to go to zoology and physiology.”
Her adviser, Professor Harold Bergman, is also interested in Agent Orange issues. “Those are two very important people who geared me to where I am now,” Thu Pham says. “It’s also important to mention Anne Alexander (director of International Programs). She helped me find the funding for my research for my master’s that allowed me to go back to Vietnam and make connections with key people, such as government officials, so that I could do my research and get permission. The International Programs office was very important along with the funding, including the Helga Otto Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources Student Research and Creative Activities Grant, the Plummer Achievement Scholarship, the Dick and Lynne Cheney Fellowship for Excellence in Study Abroad, the Dick and Lynne Cheney Study Abroad Grants and the Paul Stock Grant-In-Aid.”
Thu Pham says she may pursue a master’s in public health after her Ph.D. in order to achieve her ultimate goal of working for a non-governmental organization overseas. “I want to focus on health prevention in developing countries, especially in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos,” she says. “When I came back to Vietnam, I noticed we have a lot of things here that people don’t have over there—even little educational things like ‘wash your hands after using the bathroom’ signs. My goal is to work to improve public health in Vietnam.”
One of the 10 Cowboy Ethics adopted by UW is “Do what has to be done.” Diem Thu Pham’s commitment to improving public health in Vietnam and other developing countries exemplifies this principle.