Vietnamese man, 21, wins PhD scholarship at top US technology institute

By Nhat Le   May 18, 2024 | 07:00 pm PT
A Vietnamese college student in the U.K. has won a full Ph.D. scholarship worth $116,000 per year in Bioengineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) of the U.S.

Born in 2003, Phung Phuoc Nguyen Anh received the acceptance letter from Caltech at the end of February, before he officially turned 21.

Caltech is a leading global university in basic sciences and engineering (STEM), and one with the highest per capita Nobel Prize winners in the U.S., known for its stringent admission criteria, with a total student body of only about 2,000, according to British publication Times Higher Education.

The Ph.D. program in Bioengineering is expected to last six years. During this period, Anh will have all tuition fees and personal expenses covered.

A native of Ho Chi Minh City, Anh studied at the High School for the Gifted under Vietnam National University, HCMC. In his 11th grade, he decided to apply for Westbourne, a private high school in the U.K.

Upon completing high school, Anh graduated from Westbourne with a perfect score of 45 in the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program in 2021.

Notably, he became the first student in Westbourne High School's history to achieve a perfect IB score and A-Level (concurrently with the IB Diploma) with 4 A grades (Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography).

The outstanding results enabled Anh to be admitted to five universities in the United Kingdom, including Cambridge University, University College London, Manchester University King's College London, and Warwick University.

Anh chose to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge University, which was ranked second globally in the QS World University Rankings 2024.

Currently, he is still in his junior year.

At Cambridge, students typically study three years for a bachelor's and one additional year for a master's degree.

However, Anh decided to "skip" the master's program and apply directly for the Ph.D. program at Caltech.

"My family and I were overjoyed to hear this. This result wasn't too surprising because deep down, I felt that Caltech was where I belong," he said.

Before deciding to skip the master's program, Nguyen Anh interned at the school for three months in the summer of 2023, where had the opportunity to showcase his abilities and gain support from professors to apply and return to Caltech for the Ph.D. program.

The third-year student obtained three recommendation letters from professors at the University of Cambridge and Caltech.

Anh started experimental research in his first year, earlier than his peers at Cambridge. Throughout his studies and research, he worked diligently, proposing bold ideas and outstanding projects. As a result, the guiding professors noticed his independent and creative working style and wrote positive reviews in the recommendation letters.

In his essay, he explained to the admissions committee why he wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and highlighted his qualities and experience.

"You have to know how to shine, have a clear vision of what you need to thrive and succeed. That's a factor highly valued by American universities. They want to hear about your research journey," he said.

"The preparation time was quite stressful as I had to balance final-year undergraduate studies and revising the essay multiple times to meet the deadline."

Nguyen Anh works in the lab of the Department of Biological Engineering (Cambridge University) preparing for the iGEM 2022 exam. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Anh

Phung Phuoc Nguyen Anh works in the lab of the Department of Biological Engineering at Cambridge University in 2022. Photo courtesy of Phung Phuoc Nguyen Anh

Anh said he started his journey in the U.K., a suitable place to accumulate basic academic knowledge and use it as a springboard to the U.S., a scientific powerhouse.

He prepared for and succeeded in applying to both the University of Cambridge, the world's second-ranked university, and Caltech, on his own.

During his undergraduate studies, Anh actively built close relationships with professors. He chose a lab with a supportive, reputable professor willing to write recommendation letters and aligned with his research direction.

A key milestone for Anh was becoming one of six Cambridge representatives in the International Genetically Engineered Machine international research competition in synthetic biology in France.

With a project on restructuring molecular genetic circuits, he led the team to win a Gold Medal and Top 5 Engineering award when he was still a first-year student.

Thanks to his early perseverance and strategic skills, Anh has achieved numerous accomplishments throughout his academic journey since high school.

He scored 8 in IELTS in ninth grade, won the First Prize in the citywide Biology Competition in the 2017-2018 school year, was the top scorer in Biology at the High School for the Gifted, and received an honorable mention in the national Biology competition as a 10th grader.

Continuing his high school studies in the U.K., Anh won a Gold Medal at the 2020 British Biology Olympiad and the 2021 U.K. Chemistry Olympiad and was invited to compete in the selection exams for the international Biology and Chemistry teams before graduating with a perfect score.

Nguyen Anh (far left) participates in organizing the Chemistry Race 2024 exam for high school students across the UK. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Anh

Phung Phuoc Nguyen Anh (L) participates in organizing the Chemistry Race 2024 exam for high school students across the U.K. Photo courtesy of Phung Phuoc Nguyen Anh

Reflecting on his academic journey, Anh shared that despite being involved in Biology since middle school, he decided to stop studying the subject after his first year of college. He realized that to become a better biologist, he needed to expand his perspective in related scientific fields.

Thus, starting in his second year, Anh switched to Chemistry and Mathematics.

He recognized that he had limited quantitative skills and was determined to improve. Ultimately, Mathematics and Chemistry proved helpful and broadened his understanding of solving biological problems.

In 2023, he won the Ray Driver Prize for outstanding achievements in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, affirming his interdisciplinary adaptability.

"Three years of studying Mathematics and Chemistry have given me the confidence to return to my passion for Biology at Ph.D. level with a stronger foundation."

In his journey to Caltech this September, Anh plans to continue focusing on molecular engineering in biological systems. He also wants to learn how to apply his research in medicine and daily life.

"There are many different policies to learn about, like biosecurity or product operations. I want to have many good projects applicable to real life by the time I graduate," he said.

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