What is your educational/professional background?
I grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and did my early schooling there. I earned my B.S. in food science at the University of New South Wales in Australia and my Ph.D. in food science at the University of California-Davis. Before joining CALS, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington.
How did you get into your field of research?
When I was an undergraduate student, I took a wonderful microbiology course that fascinated me about the world of microbes. I then worked in a food fermentation lab for two years, working on the microbial ecology of cocoa bean fermentation. Still excited about microbiology research, I went on to study bacterial signaling mechanisms in graduate school, working on how bacteria detect environmental signals to adjust their respiration. Towards the end of my PhD training, a completely novel second messenger molecule was found to be synthesized by bacteria, called c-di-AMP. This discovery blew my mind, and I decided to take postdoctoral training on c-di-AMP signaling mechanisms.
What are the main goals of your current research program?
Bacteria are amazingly versatile organisms that can grow in such diverse environments. My model bacterium is Listeria monocytogenes, which is abundant in soil (think of their ability to survive heavy rainfalls!), but can also grow in preserved foods (that are designed to inhibit bacteria) and infect a wide range of mammalian hosts, including humans. I’m especially fascinated by the various ways they can switch their lifestyles according to their environments. Right now I’m working on how a small, essential molecule called c-di-AMP mediates Listeria growth and infection. Because c-di-AMP is actually very widespread among different bacteria, in the near future I’m planning to investigate its roles in gut bacteria, and develop antimicrobial strategies based on inhibiting c-di-AMP signaling.
What attracted you to UW–Madison?
The collaborative nature of campus. There’s no limit on what scientific directions I can explore, or who I wish to work with. During my first visit to campus, when I came to interview for the food science position, I was already introduced to professors from different departments, and I really loved the graduate student community. Since starting last month, I’ve really been enjoying the interactions I’ve had with various colleagues and students.
Favorite place on campus?
Babcock Hall Dairy Store.
Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Yes, the ultimate goals of my research are to treat bacterial infections in humans and livestock, to improve agricultural productivity and to make food safer and healthier.
What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
An individual can get multiple Listeria infections in their lifetime. We just don’t know it, because most healthy people can quickly clear the bug, but Listeria is a great concern for the YOPI (young, old, immunocompromised, pregnant) group.
I love outdoor activities – skiing, hiking and kayaking. Also karaoke!