Chance meeting steers grad into cutting-edge research
By Sarah Moley
Minh Than, this year’s Outstanding Graduate within the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Colorado, describes his path to success as beginning with uncertainty and a little luck but ending with discovery and a profound, life-changing passion.
Than’s decision to major in biochemistry was the product of his ambivalence and the fact that his friend, Calvin, had decided to major in biochemistry as well. Than joined the Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program because another friend of his had joined, and Than was still unsure about his own path.
Then a chance encounter, brought about by what Than calls “the precise coordination of a variety of factors,” or the alignment of conditions sometimes known as “chance” or “luck,” occurred.
Than was sitting in the MASP office one day when he realized that he was late for class; on his way out, met Nancy.
Nancy was a work-study student who was working as a lab technician in a DNA sequencing facility; a job that would later belong to Than, as she was leaving and looking for her replacement.
“I never would have met Nancy if I wasn’t late for class that day,” Than says “To me, it seemed that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It seemed like a pure stroke of luck.”
Than describes this moment as the event that set him on his current path: “I find it incredible” he says “how these seemingly chance encounters can influence, and even change our lives as individuals.”
Since then, he has pursued a double major in biochemistry and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, along with working in collaboration with Min Han, CU professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, researching the physiological function of microRNAs.
His latest project involves studying the environmental stress response of Caenorhabditis elegans, a worm in which behavioral variations are easily observed.
He has discovered a novel role of microRNAs in regulating an environmental-stress response. Through genetic studies, he found that a combination of mutations cause these worms to enter a state of hibernation at uncharacteristic points in time.
This demonstrates the existence of a kind of buffering system for gene expression that senses the surrounding environment and then creates a tentative genetic alteration within the organism.
However, Than does not see life as a purely scientific matter; he allows room for the kind of kismet that has led to great scientific discoveries such as penicillin.
“Take, for example, Alexander Fleming, a Nobel Laureate. Fleming was a scientist that was interested in studying bacteria” Than explains “he failed to practice good lab technique,” explaining that, upon returning from vacation, Fleming had found his bacteria plates contaminated with mold.
“Fleming then noticed that there were no bacteria colonies near the mold. … This initial observation led to the discovery of penicillin, which has saved millions of lives.”
Than then asks, “What if he had been a little more careful to prevent contamination? What if his former student had not visited that day and he didn’t get a second look? How much later would penicillin have been discovered? How many lives did he save because of it?”
“Again,” Than concludes “we see how being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people can be life-altering. Not just for us as individuals, but for society.”
Than’s propensity for hard work has long characterized his approach to education: from his involvement in the International Baccalaureate program at Thornton High School to his plans to spend next year working in collaboration with Han before heading off to graduate school.
Than has also been involved with many community-service projects, volunteering for a range of organizations that include HospiceCare, Whiz Kids, Camp Wapyapi and Global Challenge.
Than says his altruistic work started in high school with the volunteer hours that were required by the IB program. However, since then he has realized the value of being an active member of his community and demonstrates a strong commitment to serving others.
In his address to his fellow graduates at the Honors Convocation this month, Than advised his fellow classmates not to fear failure:
“For those of you who have yet to fail, you are lucky. But for those of you who have failed, you are even luckier, because every failure gives you conviction—it gives you the conviction to be better, to go further, and to do more; it gives you the conviction to grow.
“Dwell on your failures, and learn from them.”
Than states that his goal is, ultimately, to help improve human health with developments science and to then be able to observe that positive impact on society.
“Fleming” he says “failed to prepare a proper bacteria plate. His failure culminated in the saving of millions of lives and the changing of modern medicine. Yes, I know failure hurts. Yes, I know failure stings. I know failure sucks, but only if you let it.”