Academics Blog


Name: Trang “Diem” Vu

Year: Class of 2012

Hometown: Baltimore, MD

Major: Molecular & Cellular Biology, Writing Seminars


Like a lot of other kids, I grew up wanting to be something new basically every year. The first thing I can remember wanting to be was an archaeologist. Then I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and was terrified of the prospect of being trapped in a labyrinth of insect pits, rooms that try to smash you, and crazy I’m-going-to-rip-your-heart-out-and-grin-as-you-plummet-to-a-fiery-death people.

Then I wanted to be a paleontologist, but Jurassic Park ruined it for me. I imagined velociraptors lurking in my doorway for weeks after that movie.

In fifth grade I temporarily settled on the title of “ornithologist.” The word was sufficiently intimidating (everyone was jealous) and birds were my favorite animals. I don’t know what happened that made me change my mind. Maybe it was when a pigeon gave me a present on my shirt during that trip to the zoo, but I went through middle school and the beginning of high school not really knowing what I wanted to do.

But by the end of eighth grade, I made a more permanent decision. I lost my aunt to uterine cancer, and I knew I wanted to become a doctor so that no other thirteen-year old girls had to grow up without their aunts. I looked at the world around me and realized all the death and pain, and I discovered that being a doctor was one of the many ways—though not the only way—I could leave an impact, however small, on the world and its people.

And since then, things have fallen into place for me. In high school it dawned on me that I was particularly good at a few things: biology, writing, working really hard, and interacting with people. (I know, I know, it’s all subjective. I am actually not a jackanapes…I hope.) Doctors have to know their way around biology, they are always interacting with people and they always have to work under great pressure and for long hours. And I knew writing would be something I’d do on the side. I know for a fact that I immediately lose interest in my hobbies as soon as I am forced to do them.

The decision to become a doctor was my own. I hope that the belief that all Asian pre-meds chose the profession to which they aspire only because they were forced to do so by their parents will someday be dispelled. (As a kid, my parents actually encouraged me to pursue art, so there.)

Yes, I admit my sister, who is six years ahead of me in the game and currently in medical school, is aspiring to the same profession. But please! Enough of this “following in your sister’s footsteps” thing! I’m my own person, too, you know!

So because of this decision, I thought it only made sense to become a Molecular and Cellular Biology & Writing Seminars major here at Hopkins. It is a bit of a hefty goal, taking on two majors. But I take comfort in the fact that I’ve chosen the majors I have because I am genuinely interested in them. My work towards the Molecular and Cellular Biology degree will prepare me to medical school and feed my curiosity, while my work in Writing Seminars will help me fine tune the one art I can see myself pursuing for the rest of my life.

Why Molecular and Cellular Biology as opposed to Biology? There’s so much interesting research here at Hopkins—why not get in on that action? The Molecular and Cellular Biology results in a B.S. degree instead of a B.A. and includes six extra research credits. This coming spring semester I will be getting three out of the way.

I will be working with Dr. Christopher Ruff at the medical school, tracing molds of ancient femur, tibia, and humerus bones and uploading the images onto a computer. The lab is trying to contribute skeletal measurements of ancient and modern human specimens to an international database so that scientists can better correlate variations in bone shape to different lifestyles of different historical eras and regions. I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty cool to me. Bones can tell stories!



Here is a set of tracings I did: cross sections of femur, tibia, and humeri. These molds were taken from one of the largest samples of Iron Age Englishmen in the world!


Posterior femurAnd this is a picture of the anterior view of a femur. I drew it (yes, from a book!) just so I could get a better understanding of a bone for which I was creating cross sections. You heard me right—I did it for the fun of it.

In the future, I might also be working with Dr. Ru Chih Huang, who is studying how certain chemicals from rain forest plants can prevent HIV transcription (just like in Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice!), and Dr. Beatrice Kondo, who maps the genealogy of wild Baltimorean birds (I will get to channel my fifth-grade dreams!).

Wall It is a bit of a hefty goal, taking on two majors. But I take comfort in the fact that I’ve chosen the majors I have because I am genuinely interested in them. And the two balance nearly perfectly, and each of my semesters will be a mix of science and humanities classes. I am one of the people who can’t work on only one thing at a time, or only have one interest. I’m made up of a lot of puzzle pieces; just look at the wall in my dorm, my current pride and joy! Moving on. In first semester I tackled Chemistry 101 and its lab, Biology Workshop, Introduction to Biological Anthropology, Introduction to Fiction and Poetry, and Philosophic Classics.

Chemistry I and Chemistry lab were difficult, but everyone survived. I studied really hard and I actually got an A on one of the midterms. That gave me hope, and now I feel like I’m really pumped to get into the ring again, ready to take on the second semester of Chemistry. The second semester features a professor whose lecturing style I prefer, as well as less homework. Always a good sign. But Chemistry lab is the same as last semester: do all your work early, go over it a few times and with a TA at a help session, and get a good grade.

In Biology Workshop we listened to interesting lectures: one about cystic fibrosis, another on the Chesapeake, and another on the language of birds! And Biological Anthropology was an amazing course taught by the great Dr. Teaford, who happens to teach anatomy at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. You know Homo erectus, but did you ever hear of Homo heidelbergensis or Sahelanthropus? We even talked about a lot of anthropological issues like race and culture, and even how culture can change evolution!

This semester I only have one biology class: Mammalian Evolution. I’ve heard from the graduate students in the lab that the class is intense, but I’m glad that it’s about a subject I enjoy. Who doesn’t love mammals, the fuzziest and cuddliest of them all? You just have to get around memorizing their taxonomical names and respective geological time periods…

For my Writing Seminars major requirements, last year I took Philosophical Classics and Introduction to Fiction and Poetry (IFP) I. Philosophy was difficult for me, but I loved that I didn’t have to take any exams! Papers are better in the aspect that you have more time, and you can go to the Writing Center to get your paper proofread.

Marquez And in IFP I, I learned that my writing style is very similar to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My TA told me that he can see me writing something almost as good as 100 Years of Solitude in (let’s be honest) someday. I just started 100 Years of Solitude, and I realize now that my TA must have been lying through his teeth, and I am certain that Marquez is one of my favorite writers ever. Just look at him! How can you not love a man like that? But seriously, that’s the great thing about IFP; you discover so many things about the craft of writing and about writers whom you have never heard before!

This semester, I’m taking History of Occidental Civilization: Modern Europe (Occiv) and IFP II. I’m excited for IFP II, of course, because once again I get to do something I normally do for fun for a grade. I’m also excited for Occiv because I haven’t taken a history course since junior year of my high school! And Europe is just plain great.

After first semester, I got to check off a sizeable chunk of the requirements for each of my majors, and at the end of this semester I get to check off even more! Actually, I just met with a Vietnamese professor on campus so I could get confirmation that I’m a native Vietnamese speaker. Now I get to check off a four-semester requirement of a foreign language!

Each step I get closer towards fulfilling my majors makes me feel more and more accomplished. It’s a great feeling when your hard work is rewarded. But I’m not all about studying. I’m involved in lots on and off campus, and each activity reflects a facet of my interest in writing or biology.
I have a job at Strategic Results, where I help in the organization of National Institute of Health conferences. Sometimes I get to contact really prestigious scientists in different biomedical Mefields, and even look over their abstracts.

I’m active in our school’s branch of American Cancer Society, and I volunteer at the Hope Lodge, making dinner for cancer patients every month. I also help out Relay for Life, a group that works all year towards a huge fundraiser in April–pulling an all-nighter on the Upper Quad, jamming to music and doing all sorts of fun activities.

And I’m a staff-writer for our Newsletter: oldest student-run campus newspaper in the nation! Go us!

I’ve learned that I can study what I want, in almost any combination here at Hopkins. And evenwith two majors, or three (some people are trying it), or two majors and two minors (yep, I’ve heard of it), you can still enjoy classes, your social life, or just life in general. I’ve had a lot of fun so far, and I’m so happy to see how far I’ve come and how much I’ve grown.

I think even the younger version of myself would look at me today and approve of the path I’ve taken. And appreciate the lack of ancient snake pits in my daily life.


Click here to access more information about the Molecular and Cellular Biology Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective as well as the Biology question thread.