Ngan Vo, PhD, 2002

When Ngan Vo started the Neuroscience Graduate Program at OHSU in 1997, she was no stranger to Portland or even to the Vollum Institute. A Portland native and graduate of Reed College, Vo worked as an undergraduate in the lab of John Scott, a former Vollum scientist. That bench work prepared her for her lab rotations and her graduate research on transcriptional regulation in Richard Goodman’s lab. The topic of her doctoral work took her by surprise. If you had asked her starting out in graduate school about the focus of her future thesis work, Vo says, “transcription would probably be the least likely idea. But I liked the lab, the way it worked, and I liked the field.” So, after rotations, she decided that was the best place for her. Vo—like many other NGP graduates—stresses that the research problem itself is not always the most important factor in choosing a graduate lab.

After finishing her PhD, Vo moved to Massachusetts, where she became a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Nobel prize-winning scientist Craig Mello at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester. There she worked on molecules called micro-RNAs and small interfering (si) RNA. Although the work was fulfilling, the position proved not to be the best fit for her. “I love working at the bench, but I realized that I didn’t want to work in C. elegans, and I wasn’t happy in Worcester.” So after weighing her options, Vo decided to bring that year of postdoctoral training back to the Goodman lab. Her strategy now is to take the research in a more independent direction by looking at the role of non-coding RNAs in gene regulation in the heart. Vo hopes to stay in basic science research as an independent investigator.

Vo feels that the NGP gave her the firm base she has relied upon in her research career, from the experience at the bench to the first-year coursework. She says of the Cellular Neurophysiology class organized by the Vollum’s second-floor faculty, “you could go from understanding nothing about electrophysiology to having a great foundation with which to critically evaluate the field.” Likewise, she appreciates the opportunity afforded by the Vollum Seminar Series, in which students discuss a guest speaker’s paper before the talk and then have lunch with the speaker afterwards. She jokes, “as postdocs, we had to organize to get the opportunity to meet with them. Now we feel lucky to get breakfast with a speaker!”

And like her classmate Sonal Das, Vo agrees that she and her classmates had a special bond. As different as they were, she says, “we were like-minded. And it’s easy to find like-minded people,” outside your research area. You don’t have to stay within your tiny niche of science. As for living in the Northwest, this native says the year-round opportunities for outdoor activities trump the weather. “Even though it does rain, I climb mountains, go backpacking, you could go rock climbing. If you really like the outdoors—or even if you’re curious—it’s a super-fun place.”