Commencement Story: Phuong Cao
By Ryan Schoensee

"My academic goal is to obtain an Ph.D. in Biomedical Science," said Phuong. "Majoring in Microbiology and Immunology at UTSA was the best decision I made because the coursework is designed to prepare me for higher education. It also provided me with all the skills I needed to obtain a job after graduation."

Meet Phuong Cao! She's a first-generation Roadrunner who is graduating with a B.S. in Microbiology and Immunology. Phuong hopes to use her degree to make research discoveries that could lead to advancements in healthcare.

Phuong moved from Vietnam seven years ago and started taking ESL (English as a Second Language) courses at UTSA. She was impressed by the university's culture and environment and was eager to return as a transfer student after earning her associate's degree so she could continue her education to help others.

"I grew up seeing my mom taking care of other people as a nurse," said Phuong. "Her work inspired me to get a career in life science and health care. I want to take care of other people's health like my mom."

After seeing how UTSA embraces and values diversity, Phuong was convinced that it was the university for her. She was attracted to the community because she found it treated everyone the same regardless of their culture, ethnicity, or identity.

"UTSA is a great community, everyone wants you to be successful so do not be afraid to reach out, meet with your academic adviser, talk to your professors, classmates, or the faculty members and join a student organization (or three)," said Cao. "There are plenty of resources available for UTSA students."

Phuong has made the most out of her time as a Roadrunner. Shortly after transferring to UTSA, she was invited to the Science Transfer Academy where she was "hooked" on research. She first volunteered in Dr. Bernard Arulanandam's lab in Fall 2019 and then went on to become a Provost's Undergraduate Research Fellow, where she had the opportunity to work under Dr. James Chambers in spring 2020.

At first, Phuong was intimidated during her early days in a research lab. However, under Dr. Chambers' mentorship, she received patience and encouragement that helped ease her initial anxiety. "Dr. Chambers always reminded me that experiments do not always go the way we expect, but as long as we like what we're doing and have a clear goal, we can always pick it up and try again until we achieve a desired result."

Phuong's current research project has her studying two acid phosphatases from Acinetobacter baumannii, an emerging multi-drug resistant bacterium. Phuong's main responsibilities in the lab are to breed lab mice, isolate and purify recombinant proteins, SDS-PAGE analysis, and conduct enzymatic assays.

"Since I am a microbiology major, my coursework includes a lot of hands-on experiences that are offered through my laboratory classes," said Phuong. "I have the opportunity to conduct my own independent projects to learn about microorganisms and it's been an awesome opportunity for me to grow as a researcher."

In 2020, Phuong applied to join the RISE Undergraduate Program where she gained access to an active research community. In this program, she attended weekly meetings to learn from other researchers, made new connections, and had the opportunity to present her research virtually at the SACNAS 2020 conference. Aside from all the academic-related activities, RISE also helped Phuong grow both personally and professionally by offering development courses on leadership training, budgeting, and financial management.

During her time at UTSA, Phuong also served as the vice president of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and volunteer chair of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). During her time with ASM, she promoted science within the local community by visiting Hector Garcia middle school once a month to present microbiology topics and experiments to seventh graders. Phuong is also a member of VOICES where she's engaged in several volunteer projects, such as serving meals to the homeless at St. Vinny's Bistro kitchen, to help the San Antonio community.

Cao will receive her diploma this spring, a bachelor's degree in microbiology and immunology. After commencement, she plans to continue working on her research project in Dr. Chamber's lab while she also prepares applications for doctorate programs.

"I've gained something from everyone I've met at UTSA. Whether it's been my mentor's passion, my classmates' determination, or my lab partners' diligence, they all have left strong impressions on me and have helped me become a better version of myself," said Phuong. "I am truly grateful that I was able to be surrounded by such amazing people at UTSA. My two years here have led to some of the best moments of my life."


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