Thao H. Ngo, 26, from the United States of America is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She studies the changes in structure and composition of hydrogen fuel cell catalysts using in situ characterization techniques including in situ liquid transmission electron microscopy and in situ x-ray absorption spectroscopy. This topic of research is important because researchers can use in-depth knowledge of the catalysts’ evolution to design catalysts with improved performance and durability for commercialization.
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Please tell us about yourself
Thao H. Ngo, 26, from the United States of America is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
The first chemistry class I took was in 8th grade in Vietnam (I was born and raised there). We mostly learned theory and did not get our hands on any lab experiments as my middle school in Vietnam lacked the funding to provide its students with lab equipment. So when my family moved to the US in 2005, I started high school, took chemistry again, and got to perform chemistry experiments. I remember a particular experiment in which the reaction was releasing a lot of heat, so much heat that it felt hot even through the heat resistant gloves that I was wearing, but I foolishly held on to the beaker, thinking that my experiment’s results were way more important than a minor burn. I did suffer a minor burn that day but my experiment results were saved! I guess that’s when I knew I really love chemistry. In 12th grade, some friends and I participated in a local science fair and won Grand Prize! I think that’s when I knew for sure I wanted to pursue a career in science and so I went on to study Chemical Engineering in college.
Who are your role models?
My role model is my mom. She and my father divorced when I was eight years old. After that, she worked so hard to provide for me and my sister, making sure we never missed out on summer camps or lessons that we wanted to take. When our family moved to the US, things were especially hard for my mom because she did not speak or understand any English nor did she have a professional degree. I remember my mom working three jobs to provide for our family. She then went to cosmetic school and obtained her license to operate as a nail technician in a year. My mom is a role model to me because of her perseverance and dedication to her children. She taught me values that have made me become who I am today.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
I knew I wanted to study chemical science when I was in high school, specifically after I won the Grand Prize in a local science fair. But a career in research started for me when my first mentor, Prof. Lenore Dai at Arizona State University, offered me an undergraduate research position in her lab at the end of my freshmen year. She gave me the chance to work on very exciting projects including one on the recycling of printed circuit boards using a supercritical fluid process. I worked for Prof. Dai until I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, and I publishing three peer-reviewed papers with her. In the summers, I participated in Research Experience for Undergraduates programs at university laboratory across the country. Through these programs, I met and worked for Prof. Keith Hohn of Kansas State University (summer 2011) and Prof. Dibakar Bhattacharyya of the University of Kentucky (summer 2012). I would say that I am very lucky to have met all my undergraduate mentors, who had provided me with guidance, encouragement and support and without whom I am not sure if I would be performing research in graduate school right now. I also have to give my current mentor, Prof. Hong Yang at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a shout-out. He has been there for me since the day I started graduate school.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
This is a tough question to answer as I love all my projects. But I think my current project is probably the coolest project I’ve worked on. It is already quite amazing to me that scientists have the ability to look at nanoscale, and sometimes even Angstrom-scale, materials using the transmission electron microscopy (TEM). However, because the TEM uses electron as an illumination source and electrons are easily scattered by air, TEM samples have to be ultra-thin and dehydrated so they can be used in an ultra-vacuum environment. With the recent advancement in TEM technology, I study nanoscale materials that are in a dynamically changing environment. I get to flush liquid or gaseous chemicals through and watch how my nanoscale materials are changing.
These moments made me realise that I really need to be more confident in my ability.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?
There are a few moments that I could recall but the ones that stand out the most are the moment I received my first graduate school acceptance and the moment when I was awarded with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. I got my first graduate school offer about a week after I submitted my application. It was unbelievable as it was also my top-choice graduate program. I have confidence in my work and ability but never had I imagined I would be a top choice for any programme—there are just so many highly qualified candidates out there. At that moment, I knew that I was on the right path. The second moment when I felt immense pride was when I was awarded with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program. I applied for it during my last year in college and wrote a research proposal for the first time. Obviously, I was very nervous and was mentally prepared for a rejection as I knew the fellowship is highly competitive. The day I received the award letter, I was on cloud nine. Again, I just couldn’t believe it — I, of all candidates, was chosen to receive such a prestigious fellowship. These moments made me realise that I really need to be more confident in my ability.
What is a “day in the life” of Thao like?
I typically get up around 6:30 am and start my day with 15 minutes of yoga or meditation. After that, it’s breakfast time and then off to work. I try to get to my lab at around 8 am. My workday varies depending on whether I have an in situexperiment scheduled. When I do, I would carry my equipment from my lab to the TEM room and stay there for the whole day. Because the TEM is typically operated in a dark room, I often work in the dark and by myself. When I’m not scheduled to perform an in situ TEM experiment, I would spend my day preparing for my upcoming experiments or analysing the data that I recently acquired. There are days when I’m in the lab all day and there are days when I’m at my desk all day, it really depends. I typically take a one-hour lunch break to catch up with friends or emails and daily news. Then it’s back to work. One thing I really enjoy about my lab is the occasional chit-chat with my lab mates. Around 5 pm, I go to the gym for a dance fitness class. Upon returning home after exercising, I cook and enjoy dinner (I cook almost every day). After dinner, I would try to read at least one scientific publication before heading off to bed with a book at around 11 pm.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
After graduate school, I want to continue to pursue my career in research as an industrial R&D researcher. For most of my relatively short career in research, I have spent most of my time in academic laboratory. I am now working at Argonne National Laboratory under a guest graduate research appointment, but I really want to branch out and try the industry next before deciding where I want to be for the long run. The one element I would like to keep constant in my career though is the theme of my research — I would love to continue working on renewable energy-related topics regardless of where I end up at.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
When I’m not working in the lab, I enjoy cooking and exercising. I learned to cook in college when, for the first time in my life, I was away from home and desperately missing my mom’s cooking. I used to think cooking is such a drag but I love it now. I think this might be because the process of cooking is so much like conducting an experiment — there are specific steps to follow and exact quantities of ingredients to use. But unlike doing an experiment, I almost always succeed in producing a reasonably tasty dish every time, which is why I think cooking relaxes me. Of the different types of exercise, my most favourites are dance fitness and yoga. With dancing, I get to let loose and push myself to the limit. Meanwhile, yoga helps me to control my thoughts and relax my mind.
I believe it is important to encourage young girls when they show interest in science at an early age.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?
My advice to other women interested in science/chemistry would be: “Be confident and trust yourself.” This is probably an advice to myself too as I suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time and even now, I still have some doubts. There were times when I felt like I wasn’t progressing or didn’t know what I was doing with my research. There were even times when I seriously consider quitting my PhD. But every time I am faced with doubts, I thought to myself, “why are you here in the first place?”, and the answer has always been because I love what I do and so I persevere.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?
Another tough question. I guess I can only answer this question with regard to my field. I am hoping to see fuel cell cars being driven nationwide. But the infrastructure is not there yet so this might take a while longer.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I believe it is important to encourage young girls when they show interest in science at an early age. This can be done via encouragement from parents and teachers, programmes such as science fair or workshops at local colleges and mentorship programs that connect female scientists with young girls. I was never discouraged by my mom or anyone from a career in science, so I was lucky in that way. In high school, my teachers encouraged me to enter science fairs and in college, multiple professors gave me the opportunity to work in their research groups. Now, I try to do the same for younger female students by volunteering to mentor middle school students who show interests in science. Additionally, I have two young nieces who are very curious. So for their birthdays and on holidays, I would send them boxes that contain materials for a science project; they made their own night lights with circuits and paper lanterns last time I sent them a box. I am hoping to groom my nieces into future scientists!