UST senior wins Fulbright grant for research in Sweden

St. Thomas senior biochemistry major Nick Huynh had a dilemma that many of his classmates would envy: He'd been accepted to the University of Minnesota Medical School. But then he learned he had won a Fulbright grant that would take him out of the country for nearly a year. Decisions, decisions.

So, starting late this summer, Huynh will  join an elite group of scientists working to develop a vaccine for HIV. And med school? Well, they'll hold his spot.

Huynh, 21, won a Fulbright grant for 10 months of study and research at the Karolinska Institutet, one of Europe's largest medical universities, in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Fulbright Program is the United States' flagship international exchange program, designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. Participants, chosen for their academic and leadership potential, have unique opportunities to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

Huynh, who grew up in Plymouth, leaves for Sweden in August and will work with a group of research scientists headed by Associate Professor Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, of the Karolinska Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology. Her laboratory has an international reputation for its work in experimental virology with a special focus on antiviral B cell responses and HIV-1. Huynh will join her small group of doctoral, postdoctoral and undergraduates working in a laboratory at Karolinska, home to the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and many of the world's leading researchers in biomedical science.

Under the supervision of Karlsson Hedestam, Huynh will gain knowledge and experience with the process for evaluating experimental HIV-1 vaccines, from basic cell and molecular biology to protein biochemistry and preclinical immunogenicity studies.

Huynh, who calls Sweden "an ideal country to conduct research" because English is commonly spoken there, hopes to learn Swedish while he's there, too. "

This will be Huynh's first study-abroad experience but not his first opportunity to work in a world-class research facility. His first was as a college junior in the Amgen Scholars Program at the University of California-San Francisco. With this fellowship, he conducted HIV research at the UCSF's Gladstone Institute of Virology and Immunology.

Mary Hernandez, who works in St. Thomas' International Education Center, called Huynh "an outstanding young man" who in his Fulbright grant application did "a very nice job … articulating the connection he sees between service and science and the important role it has played in his life as a student."

At St. Thomas Huynh blended his passion for research with community service, volunteering at Regions Hospital in St. Paul and through Open Arms of Minnesota, which delivers meals to people with HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and other debilitating diseases. He also helped other students as a teaching assistant in the UST chemistry lab.

How tough was it to get a Fulbright? "Finding someone to take you on is the hardest part of any research fellowship," Huynh said. "They have to choose you." Throughout the process, Emily Kessel ’09, who won a Fulbright last year, was encouraging and helpful, as was St. Thomas Biology Department faculty member Dr. Jill Manske, an immunologist with whom he'd done research. She has mentored and advised Huynh over the past three years.

"Nick came to work in my lab his sophomore year," Manske said.  "He worked on a project examining the role of neuropeptides in the immune response to cancer.  I also taught him in two courses. 

"What impressed me the most about Nick, and what continues to impress me, is his unbridled enthusiasm for science and research.  He has the magic combination of intellect, curiosity, passion and enthusiasm that will make him an outstanding biomedical researcher.  He approaches every problem with an open mind and is not afraid to jump in and try things."

Only five other St. Thomas students have received grants from the U.S. Student Fulbright Program over the last 15 years: Kessel, who got a grant for teaching English in Korea; Jennifer Nielsen ’03, who did research in Egypt in 2003-04; Megan Powers ’99, who also had a teaching grant to Korea in 2000-01, Kathryn Canepa ’98, who studied economics in Germany during the 1998-99 academic year, and Kimberly Kremer ’95, who did research on the role of Swiss neutrality in Switzerland in 1995-96.

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 under legislation introduced by Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. Administered by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State, the program operates in more than 155 countries worldwide. The Fulbright Program's U.S. Student Program currently awards approximately 1,560 grants to U.S. citizens for overseas study.

Among the grant's benefits: round-trip transportation to the host country, maintenance for the academic year, limited health benefits, book and research allowances, tuition, and enrichment activities. 

Learn more about Fulbright grants from Sarah Huesing, study abroad adviser in the International Education Center. Call the IEC, (651) 962-6450, to schedule an appointment if you are interested. The next campus deadline for applications is Oct. 1, 2010. Or, visit the Fulbright Program website for more information.