Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

Lily Nguyen’s Passion for Scientific Research Led to a Major in Integrative Biology

9 minute read

Lily Nguyen is an incoming college freshman at UC Berkeley who grew up in California. In this conversation with Howard Hsu, Lily talks about her Polygence project on biological immortality and why she feels that Polygence is different from other extracurriculars and learning in school.

Get to Know Lily

What’s your background?

My name is Lily Nguyen. I was a 12th grader when I was doing the project, but now I'm a graduated senior and going to college this fall. I went to Enochs High School in California and for college I'm going to UC Berkeley.

Lily’s Polygence Experience

What did you hope to get out of the Polygence experience?

My specific career track is medicine and for that path there’s a really big emphasis on research. Going into my senior year, I wanted to get some research experience under my belt, so that when I went into college trying to find research opportunities, I’d already have some experience.

So what I wanted to get out of Polygence was a high quality research experience and some practice with reading more complicated scientific literature.

Did you come to Polygence with a specific project in mind? Did your project idea change after having conversations with your mentor?

The project that I applied with was not the project that I ended up doing. At first I came in wanting to do something about COVID-19 and how the outbreak spread around the world. In high school, I competed on the science team, and the event that I did was called disease detectives, which is basically learning about how outbreaks start and how they spread. So I just thought, why don't I apply what I learned there to studying something in the real world like Covid? 

My project idea changed when I was just on my phone scrolling, and I came across this article about animals that were biologically immortal. I'd never heard of that before, and it was like one of those eureka moments where I was like, wow! So from there, my whole focus shifted. This idea was a bit more challenging, probably because I didn't have as much background knowledge, but it was more exciting and fascinating to me.

Could you tell us more about your project?

My project was about biological immortality in the animal kingdom, which is when animals don't die from old age, assuming everything else in their environment stays the same. Normally, as we get older, our bodies degrade and our cells age. But I looked at different organisms in our animal kingdom that had biological immortality. The main focus of my project was the jellyfish, but there's also lobsters, tortoises, and certain flatworms that all have biological immortality. I tried to find out what specifically about these organisms makes them biologically immortal, whether that be an enzyme, something to do with their DNA, or their diet. When I found out what it is that makes them biologically immortal, I tried to figure out if somehow we could apply that to humans and naturally extend our life spans. 

Currently, there aren’t any practical applications for humans. One of the things I found is that a lot of these organisms that are biologically immortal have a different environment than us. They’re focused on survival. But for us, we're not necessarily focused on survival anymore. We have stable diets and we don't have to worry about natural predators, so we’re focused on reproduction. As a result, a lot of the things that I found that make these animals biologically immortal are either not present in humans or in low levels. 

The outcome of my project was a research paper that I submitted to a journal, and I'm just waiting to hear back from them!

How do you anticipate applying the skills and knowledge you learned from this project?

My major in college right now is integrative biology, which is how biology relates to other fields and its applications. The study of biological immortality fits well into that major because it's very much about biology’s real life applications. So I’ll see if anyone’s doing that kind of research at Berkeley and if so see if I could help participate, using my background knowledge from my Polygence project.

How did Polygence shape your future aspirations with your major?

It definitely made me more interested in biology and science. Before my senior year, I didn't really take any biology classes yet. But when I was going through the project, I found that I really enjoyed learning about this kind of stuff. It really helped cement for me that yes, biology is a good major for me to pursue.

Mentorship at Polygence

Who was your mentor and what made them a good fit for your project topic?

My mentor was Saam M. He was a great mentor to work with, and one of the things I appreciate most about him was that he gave me a lot of freedom to do my project. I was really busy my senior year, so sometimes I had to get a lot of the work done during the sessions themselves, but he was really flexible and supportive about it. 

I had little biology background going into the project and he really helped answer my questions. Even if I would send him a little message at midnight being like, “what does this term mean in this paper that I'm reading,” he was quick to respond and really thorough with how he answered my question. 

What was a typical session like between you and your mentor?

Typically, we would start off our session by going over what papers I may have read since the last session and giving a quick summary of those papers. From there, usually I would have him read a paper with me, because these papers were a bit dense and I had trouble understanding them. I would have him explain it to me and we would look up things together. 

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Reflections on Lily’s Polygence Experience

How was the learning style at Polygence different from what you've done in school?

I kind of touched upon this, but with Polygence it's 100% a lot more freedom. I like to think I thrive in a more free setting. But, with that freedom it’s always on you to keep working at your project. It ultimately comes down to the student and their passion and how much they're willing to work at it, because you could just speed through everything and come up with a mediocre project. If you have the passion to consistently work at it, you can come up with a really cool project that you're proud of.

What was the most memorable part of your Polygence experience?

Definitely the symposium because I wanted to present at the symposium ever since I first heard about the program. It took at least a week to make the symposium presentation itself, and then to practice it and memorize it in my head took another week.

I didn’t have any expectations going into the presentation, I just wanted to do well and not fumble! When it came time to present, my little sister actually woke up at 8 am to watch my presentation!

I also remember this one person who anonymously wrote, “I loved your presentation,” and that made me very happy as well.

What was the most challenging part of the project?

I think the most challenging part, which is very different from school, is that there's no one to constantly check on you and make sure you're keeping up with the project. At first, I struggled with finding time to work on the project because it was my senior year and there were college applications. I struggled with that a bit, but I was able to overcome it when I kind of just sat down and remembered why I was doing this and how much I loved my topic.

It helped me to add some organization to the project - I sorted out my Google drive a bit, made a checklist of all the things I had read and all the things I wanted to have in my paper. And then just trying to set time aside for each day to work on my Polygence project really helped me be more consistent.

What was the most interesting thing you learned during your project?

I learned that the maximum age for humans is projected now to be 150 years. To learn about aging was really interesting, since you don't really learn any of that stuff in school. Also, this wasn’t the focus of my research, but some of the papers talked about using AI and how we could use technology to boost our lifespan. 

Anything about your Polygence experience that surprised you?

I think I surprised myself, because doing research for the first time can seem very daunting.

For people like me who haven't had experience with research before, it's kind of like, “what do I research? Does it have to be original research? Am I smart enough to do this? What am I interested in?” A lot of questions went through my mind, but after I finished my project, I was encouraging people to start their own research projects.

It's less about your intelligence and more about your passion and hard work. Research is just learning about the world around you.

How is Polygence different from other extracurricular activities that you've done before?

I think it’s one of the more challenging extracurriculars, but also one of the more rewarding ones. You leave it as a changed person, with not only a changed perspective of the world, but also of yourself and what you're capable of.

When you come out of the journey you come out a better person. You feel smarter. You feel like you learned something new. You challenged yourself and you did it. There's definitely a  big feeling of pride and accomplishment when you leave. 

In your opinion, how important is research for college admissions?

So I think research is important for the college admissions process not necessarily because of the outcome of your project, but because I think it's important to show that you have a genuine passion for something. I didn’t get to explain the outcomes of my research on my college applications since the application deadlines passed before I completed my research, but in one of my essays, I did talk a lot about how I found my love and passion for research and how that translates to what I'll be doing in college. I think that really helped, because it showed that I have a passion for something and I'm willing to follow through to explore that passion. I think that's where research plays a role - you can show why you have a passion for something, and explain how that passion translates to who you are as a whole being, which is what colleges are trying to find out.

Advice for other students

What advice would you give someone who’s starting to think about their own research project?

I would tell them to just go for it, because research is not really something that's emphasized at all in high school. It's also daunting. But just to go for it, because you most likely are smart enough to do this and the topic doesn't matter. It's just what you're passionate about and it doesn't matter if there's already a lot of articles out about that topic. You can still contribute something to it and at the very least you learn something new.

I would also say  to be organized, because it's really easy to get swept up and overwhelmed. Make a timeline for yourself, set your own deadlines and break it down into small pieces, which is how I did it.

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