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Running in the same circles

K. Caroline Lochungvu  (Photo: Scott Streble)

Two “future doctors” share many connections, including a passion to serve

As an undergraduate biochemistry major at the University of Minnesota, Caroline Lochungvu knew she wanted to study in Bangkok. Since the U didn’t have a study abroad program there, she simply designed her own and set off for Thailand.

Premedical student Thuy Nguyen-Tran wanted to learn more and help educate others about the medical challenges faced by immigrants and refugees. Not finding an on-campus group devoted to exploring such subjects, she created a nonprofit organization, Circle of Giving, to do precisely that.

Where other people are stymied by roadblocks, these first-year medical students simply forge ahead.

Both were members of the Minnesota’s Future Doctors first cohort in 2007. The University of Minnesota Medical School program is designed to prepare college-age Minnesotans from underrepresented communities for medical school admission. Participants—minority, immigrant, rural, and financially disadvantaged students—are selected from the freshman classes of universities and community colleges around the state.

The goal is to train future doctors who better reflect Minnesota’s diversity. And by most measures, the program—which accepts roughly 50 students into each annual cohort—is a success: Of the 13 Future Doctors participants who applied to medical school in 2009, 12 were accepted (the 13th will reapply next year). Fifty-nine program participants have secured research internships this year at the University and at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Both Lochungvu and Nguyen-Tran also are Dean’s Scholarship recipients. Created in 2004, the Dean’s Scholars Society aims to keep top medical students in Minnesota by providing full-tuition scholarships. Nguyen-Tran and Lochungvu express deep gratitude for the program: “It’s such an honor,” Lochungvu says.

K. Caroline Lochungvu: Global citizen

The old bumper sticker “Think Globally, Act Locally” might have been written with Kahoua Caroline Lochungvu—Caroline, as her friends call her—in mind.

Lochungvu was born in France to Hmong parents who’d fled Laos during the war between the United States and Vietnam. The family moved from France to Minnesota when she was a toddler. “My parents tell me that when I was little I would wear a white jacket and call myself ‘doctor,’” she says.

As a self-described “nerdy” St. Paul Central High School student, Lochungvu gravitated toward biology and chemistry. “Science felt like more of an equal playing field [than English did],” she says.

A longtime interest in Thailand prompted Lochungvu to seek a studyabroad program in Bangkok. Problem was, the U didn’t have a study abroad program in Bangkok. So Lochungvu and a friend, also a student, decided to create their own. In the fall of 2009, the two young women set out to spend a semester studying at Chulalongkorn University.

The exceedingly modest Lochungvu insists she made no headway with the language: “We could say, ‘No spice,’” she laughs. “Their food is really spicy.” But the two made lots of Thai friends who introduced them to the city, and Lochungvu’s appetite for international exploration was whetted.

Lochungvu sought the advice of Patricia Walker, M.D., director of the University’s Global Health Pathway, who encouraged her to choose the University of Minnesota for medical school—in part because of its opportunities in international medicine.

Lochungvu is leaning toward primary care—pediatrics or family medicine—and envisions a career based in the Twin Cities that includes international work. Her experience as a hospice volunteer, currently as a companion to an 85-year-old cancer patient, has intensified her interest in clinical medicine.

Seeking equity for others

One thing is certain: Wherever Lochungvu practices, her career will be rooted in a commitment to fighting what she calls “systematic, institutional inequity”—an interest fostered by her mother, a medical interpreter. “[She] really influenced me because she would come home talking about situations at work,” says Lochungvu, recalling her mother’s stories about hardships faced by patients with language, financial, and other barriers to quality care.

Lochungvu also credits her Future Doctors circle with reinforcing that ethic. “Jo Peterson [the director] really emphasizes that,” she says. “I first heard the term ‘health disparity’ from Jo, and I was able to see what my mom had been telling me over the years.”

Connecting the dots between the anecdotes her mother shared and what she’s learned at the University has injected a sense of mission into Lochungvu’s studies. “It causes you to be more passionate about medicine. That passion is what’s really going to push you through.”

Thuy Nguyen-Tran (Photo: Kelly Mac Williams)

Thuy Nguyen-Tran: Paying it forward

Thuy Nguyen-Tran’s studies keep her plenty busy, but she’s been able to find time for other typical—and not-so-typical—twentysomething pursuits: spending time with family, rock drumming… starting a nonprofit.

As an undergraduate and Minnesota’s Future Doctors participant, Nguyen- Tran—along with several of her friends, including Lochungvu—decided it was time to start paying it forward.

“We were feeling really thankful and wanted to give back to the community that has given so much to us,” says Nguyen-Tran. “We tried to figure out ways that we could help empower students who want to address health disparities because that’s a passion we all share. A lot of us come from underserved backgrounds ourselves, so we see how inequity can affect health outcomes.”

Their student group, aimed at fostering dialogue and inspiring volunteerism, soon took shape as the nonprofit Circle of Giving, with Nguyen-Tran at the helm. “I checked out some books, read up on the IRS website, [worked on] bylaws, completed the application—and then that motivated me to take some nonprofit management courses.”

Circle of Giving, now in its second year, offers twice-yearly weeklong seminars on such topics as health disparities awareness and immigrant and refugee health issues.

The oldest of four children whose parents came to the Twin Cities from Vietnam via California, Nguyen-Tran says her upbringing was informed by bedtime stories focused on altruism and by her family’s volunteer work each summer at a Vietnamese culture camp in Northfield, Minnesota.

Nguyen-Tran continues to promote Vietnamese culture by teaching a traditional dance class with her younger sister, a premed student at the University. (Also a fan of rock and roll, Nguyen-Tran received a drum kit as a graduation gift and hopes to assemble a Minnesota’s Future Doctors band.)

Science meets social justice

Integrating science and social justice advocacy comes naturally to Nguyen- Tran. She recently conducted a research project exploring why the cervical cancer rate among Vietnamese American women is five times higher than the norm.

She found that several cultural and language barriers prevent Vietnamese American women from fully benefiting from Pap tests and the HPV vaccine. She followed up by interviewing the study participants, and then organized two educational workshops to help address those barriers.

Like Lochungvu, Nguyen-Tran is attracted to pediatrics and is considering pursuing a master’s degree in public health as well. She pictures herself in community-based health, preferably working in a neighborhood clinic in the Twin Cities. “A lot of [Minnesota’s Future Doctors] have that primary care mentality,” she says.

“It’s an amazing program,” she says. “I honestly don’t know where I’d be without it.”

By Susan Maas

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