Nguyen Thi Thao Nguyen's earliest interest in science came when she "first got to play with experiments." Growing up in Vietnam, Nguyen, who was Hamilton's Class of 2008 salutatorian and a double major in physics and mathematics, devoted most of her early school science classes to math and didn't have a chance to do hands-on chemistry laboratory work until she arrived in Singapore for high school. "You could mix two things and they would suddenly change colors … that was cool," she says.
Now en route to a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago, Nguyen has come a long way since those first experiments. Her senior thesis, The Role of Aluminum in Rare-Earth Doped Sol-Gel Silicate Glasses, and her research in the lab of Professor of Physics Ann Silversmith earned Nguyen a place as a 2008 finalist for the American Physical Society's prestigious LeRoy Apker Award, an annual honor for exceptional undergraduate research. Following two summers of research at Hamilton that continued through her senior project, Nguyen has co-authored three publications in the Journal of Noncrystalline Solids and the Journal of Luminescence. Some of Nguyen's work with Silversmith and other student and faculty contributors from Hamilton, Davidson and Whitman Colleges was presented in 2007 at the Dynamic Processes Conference in Spain, and last September, Nguyen presented her research in Washington, D.C.
A counselor at her school in Singapore suggested that Nguyen consider small liberal arts colleges in the United States to continue her education, which led to an interview with an admission representative from Hamilton. "I got to know at that point that they were building the Science Center, and we talked a bit about how the Chemistry Department worked here, and I thought 'Why not?'" she says. "I applied early decision."
Coming to Hamilton in 2004 and beginning to study physics — after first thinking she would major in chemistry — was a very different experience from what she was used to in high school physics classes, which she says was all about "different experiments measuring the same thing. It wasn't that much fun. But when I got here, it was a lot more fun.… That must have been the turning point for physics."
At Hamilton, Nguyen was able to start doing her own research and work closely with professors as early as her sophomore year, which would not have been possible at a large research university. "I don't know if it's because I'm an international student, but the bond with my professors has been stronger than most other students'," she says; it's because teachers go out of their way to be supportive toward students "who don't have parents around," she believes. "I get to know them a lot more than most other students would, so it's become sort of like a family."
The LeRoy Apker Award is divided into two categories: nominees from liberal arts colleges and those from Ph.D.-granting institutions. Each potential nominee is recommended by his or her college's Physics Department and a professional in the field; published articles and theses are then submitted. As a finalist, Nguyen was flown to Washington, D.C., in the fall and given an hour and fifteen minutes to present research and answer questions before a panel of university and college professors.
"Finding something that no one else has found before is rewarding and exciting … and teaching provides a different kind of excitement," she says. Having enjoyed her tutoring work at Hamilton's Quantitative Literacy Center, she plans to teach in the future, as well as to make plenty of time for her own research.
"It's nice when you don't give [students] the answer, but you give them the direction and they arrive at the answer themselves," she says. "I think that's rewarding, too. I want to teach at a small school — that's where I think teaching is so much more important than at a big school. I really loved my experience, and I want to give other students that kind of experience."
— By Nick Stagliano '11