Vivian Nguyen Receives NSF-Simons Center Undergraduate Research Award in Quantitative Biology

May 2, 2022

UBRP participant Vivian Nguyen presents her work at two international conferences

Picture of Vivian Nguyen presenting her research poster

In March 2022, student researcher and UBRP secretary Vivian Nguyen was selected as a finalist to participate in the Prize for Undergraduate Research, sponsored by the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology at Northwestern University. Five finalists from across the nation were selected to present their work in a poster presentation at the Conference for Approaches in Quantitative Biology at Evanston, IL. The award recognizes distinguished undergraduates involved in interdisciplinary research.

 Vivian is a junior double majoring in physiology and mathematics while also working with Dr. Tim Secomb on building theoretical models of blood vessel adaptations. “Human capillaries are constantly remodeling in response to the body’s metabolic needs. Sustained exercise can form extremely dense vascular networks to keep up with the muscle’s oxygen demand, which is what we see in athletes,” she describes. To better understand this phenomenon, Vivian developed a simulation that models how capillaries selectively keep or prune excess vessels by responding to local signals.

 “I was inspired to pursue this project after learning about dynamical systems in my ordinary differential equations class my sophomore year.” Vivian explains, “The explosion of technology in the past few decades has enabled applied mathematicians to investigate complex systems that couldn’t be analyzed before. I was fascinated by how each system in the body coordinates diverse, moving parts to fulfill its physiological role. This presented a classic dynamical system! The unique combination of my coursework allowed me to assess the physiology from an analytical perspective. Then, participating in research offered me an environment that fostered my curiosity and challenged me to consider problems beyond my course curriculum.”

Picture of Vivian Nguyen receiving the first place award at the Conference for Approaches in Quantitative Biology

Vivian Nguyen (far left) receives the NSF-Simons Center Undergraduate Research Award in Quantitative Biology

Vivian represented the University of Arizona by receiving 1st place in the competition with an award amount of $1,000. In her presentation, she advocated that “building mathematical models allows us to test hypotheses. We build a model based on our assumptions of how we think the system behaves. Then we test the integrity of the model to identify what mechanisms are necessary.”

She reflects that the best part of the conference was engaging in crosstalk between experimental biologists and mathematicians to propose new research directions. Vivian shares, “Most of my peers in UBRP work at a lab bench, but I run experiments on computational simulations. I was surprised to find a rapidly growing field of experimental biologists interested in quantitative techniques.”

 In April 2022, Vivian received a UBRP Travel Award to attend Experimental Biology (EB) in Philadelphia, PA with the Secomb lab group. EB is an annual meeting of five societies exploring anatomy, biochemistry and molecular biology, investigative pathology, pharmacology, and physiology. “It was amazing to be able to share my ideas with such a wide breath of scientists,” she exclaims. Vivian attributes her success to Dr. Secomb’s guidance, “My mentor has played a prominent role in advocating for quantitative models to direct our current understanding of physiological systems. I am inspired by his ability to communicate with experimentalists, and I hope to build on these skills from my opportunities to present.” In fact, at the conference Dr. Secomb received the Landis Award, a prestigious recognition of outstanding investigators in microcirculation. 

 “Talking to established researchers solidified my desire to continue research as a career. I am hoping to pursue an MD-PhD degree after my college education.” Vivian remarks, “I strongly encourage other undergraduates to participate in collaborative events because it puts into perspective how many opportunities are out there for new discoveries!”