Chi Nguyen, a PhD student attending the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSK), has been awarded the 2023 Chairman’s Prize. The competitive award is presented annually and was established by GSK’s Board of Trustees Chair Emeritus Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., for whom the school is named.
This year’s $2,000 Chairman’s Prize was awarded to Nguyen for her research on the interactions between environmental factors (such as medication), the gut microbiota, and the immune system in acute graft-versus-host disease, a potentially fatal complication that can follow allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplantation (allo-HCT).
Nguyen’s research focused on patients undergoing allo-HCT. These patients often use many different types of medications, but little is known about how medications interact with intestinal microbiota in humans. “Microbiota” refers to the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the human intestines and play an important role in regulating the immune system. Having a greater understanding of the interactions between medicines and the microbiota can help clinicians develop strategies to protect the gut health of people with cancer who are undergoing treatment.
Nguyen conducted her research under the mentorship of Marcel van den Brink, MD, PhD, Head of the Division of Hematologic Malignancies, who also has a lab in the Immunology Program at the Sloan Kettering Institute (SKI). The Marcel van den Brink Lab studies strategies to improve immunotherapies for patients, with a special emphasis on the role of the intestinal microbiome in disease, CAR T cell therapy, and regeneration of thymic function to improve T cell immunity.
“This project will be of great importance to assess the role of many commonly used drugs and their effects on the gut microbiome,” Dr. van den Brink says. “Chi was very brave to engage in this project, which was purely computational biology. Her background in this field was limited when she joined my lab. Therefore, I am even more proud of her accomplishments.”
Finding a Career in Science
Nguyen was born and raised in Hanoi, Vietnam, and moved to the United States to attend Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. In 2018, after graduation, she moved to New York City to pursue graduate school with an eye on cancer research. “My parents have always inspired a sense of curiosity in me,” says Nguyen. “Curiosity about the natural world, biology, and how things work.” She dreamed of a career that would allow her to channel that curiosity into making a difference for others.
Nguyen’s original dream was to be a journalist, but now she can’t imagine a career in anything other than science. She is thrilled to know that her research could one day have a positive, life-changing effect on people with cancer. “I have always been interested in studying cancer, given how complex the disease is,” she says. “I have also personally witnessed the devastation that comes with a cancer diagnosis. This is what motivates me. To see how my research is translated to clinicians and how it can have an impact on the lives of patients is exciting.”
Nguyen appreciates the support she has received at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) and GSK. She is also grateful for the opportunities she has had because of the close connection between the labs of SKI and the clinics of Memorial Hospital. “I am honored to receive this recognition for the potential impact of my thesis research work,” says Nguyen. “This publication would not have been possible without the clinical microbiome infrastructure that has been built at MSK and the clinical staff members and patients who have participated in this study.”
When Nguyen isn’t in the lab conducting her research, she enjoys exploring the diverse culinary scene of New York City and practicing her newest passion, long-distance running. She is training to run the New York City Marathon this fall.
Nguyen’s research findings have been published in the journal Cancer Discovery and are summarized here.