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Undergraduate research: An eye-opening experience

Each month on Know the Senate of College Councils will shine the spotlight on one undergraduate researcher. This month, pre-pharmacy major Joseph Le Nguyen talks about his work studying alcoholism.

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A wealth of knowledge and opportunities is available to undergraduates who choose to get involved in cutting-edge research at the university. The Senate of College Councils, which co-sponsors Research Week, is showcasing the work of one undergraduate researcher a month, in this new QandA series appearing on Know.


Joseph Le Nguyen

Joseph Le Nguyen Photo: Randy Yohan

Name: Joseph Le Nguyen
Major: Undeclared/Pre-Pharmacy
Year: Junior
Hometown: Fort Worth, Texas
Background: Nguyen is a third-year pre-pharmacy major in the College of Natural Sciences and a research assistant in Dr. Rueben Gonzales’ lab, which is associated with the Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology, the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Neuroscience. Working with Gonzales and Dr. Shannon Zandy, Nguyen is involved in the investigation of the neurochemical mechanisms that underlie the rewarding and reinforcing effects of alcohol. Research done in the lab is helping to contribute to the development of new treatment strategies that will be more effective at preventing uncontrolled alcohol consumption.

Explain your path to getting involved in research.

As a freshman, I wanted to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible while at UT.  I subscribed to every mailing list that interested me, including health profession clubs, social clubs, UT newsletters, and the Undergraduate Research mailing list.  In my sophomore year, I received an email regarding alcohol research, and immediately submitted my resume and interest letter for the position. I began my research work in the summer. It really is amazing how one email resulted in the best decision I have made during my education thus far.

What interested you in investigating the neurochemical mechanisms underlying alcoholism?

A guest lecture on alcohol dependence in my “Drugs in Our Society” class, an introductory course offered by the college of pharmacy, piqued my interest towards studying alcoholism. Dr. Erickson, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, explained, “The greatest drug problem in the United States is alcohol.” The dire consequences of alcohol consumption demonstrate the importance of researching the neurochemical mechanisms behind alcohol dependence. Aggressively targeting how alcohol affects the brain and behavior is a vital public health concern.  Ultimately, our research project will contribute to the development of new treatment strategies that will be more effective at preventing alcohol dependence. My devoted goal in participating in this research project is to contribute to the scientific understanding and development of an effective treatment for alcoholism.

What do you consider to be the most significant part about research?

Participating in research offers a world of learning by immersing the undergraduate into a multi-discipline community that thrives on passionate exploration. Hands down, the most significant part about research is the unique community, which includes all of the graduate students, post-doctoral students, and faculty members that work with me in the Gonzales Lab. Every day, I am amazed by the graduate and post-doctoral students that surround me. Shannon Zandy, John Valenta, Christy Schaer, and James Doherty always go beyond what is expected to help undergraduates answer questions, making them all outstanding members of the team. Dr. Gonzales’ lab is associated with the Division of Pharmacology/Toxicology, Department of Psychology, and Institute for Neuroscience, so there are limitless opportunities to learn new things across disciplines. One of my favorite opportunities in research includes participation in the Alcohol Journal Club, where our research team joins experts in alcohol research from different science disciplines to engage in real, cutting-edge scientific discussions. The exchanges that ensue between world-renowned faculty and graduate students at these discussions are nothing short of exhilarating.

How has your involvement in research impacted your educational experience?

My participation in research has been the most eye-opening and extraordinary experience in my undergraduate career. Before stepping into the world of research, I approached education with the simple, transparent goal of earning an “A” at the end of each semester. Particularly, the scientific discussions have taught me to take ownership of my education and actively explore questions that spark my curiosity. Learning a completely new discipline in my research has motivated me to expand my education by taking Vertebrate Neurobiology and Neurobiology of Addiction as electives in my curriculum. There is nothing more satisfying than enrolling in an incredibly challenging class, then giving it everything you’ve got, all the while knowing that you are doing it to better yourself, not for a requirement. Research has instilled in me the drive to explore my passions beyond my limits and expectations. I hope to one day make a valuable contribution to the world through my own project in pharmacy school.

How does your work in research complement your learning inside of the classroom?

I had no idea that getting involved with research would completely transform my undergraduate education. After just one day of working in Gonzales’ lab, I realized that being a research assistant involves much more than just “assisting” graduate students and faculty in the lab. Assisting in the research lab includes hands-on learning of techniques in animal care, drug administration, surgical technique, perfusion fixation, slide preparation, microdialysis, and biochemical assay. The nature of working in the research lab provides a framework that makes abstract concepts taught in lectures more tangible for me. I am especially grateful that Dr. Reuben Gonzales offers such valuable opportunities for undergraduates like me to get involved in research. He is providing a first-class education at The University of Texas at Austin by introducing undergraduates to an enriching research environment.