Unique Scientist: Khoa Tran

Time to meet Khoa Tran (He/him)! Khoa is a cellular and molecular biologist at the University of Pennsylvania interested in understanding the process of aging at the epigenetics level!

What kind of scientist are you?
I am a cellular and molecular biologist interested in understanding why we age and how this happens. Specifically, I’m interested in how our genes are expressed differently as we age through information outside of the DNA sequence, called our epigenome, so I am also an epigeneticist. Right now, my research is looking at how changes to our epigenome might contribute to diseases often associated with aging; like cancer, diabetes, or atherosclerosis.

What made you want to become a scientist?
As a kid, I fondly remember checking out multiple books on dinosaurs and had aspirations to become a paleontologist. However, Nicolas Cage changed everything. My favorite movie was “The Rock”, where Nicolas Cage played a biochemist who had to infiltrate Alcatraz to dismantle biochemical missiles. At the time, I thought this was what the life of a scientist was like and so I began pursuing science. While I’m not dealing with deadly chemicals and working with the CIA, I found a love for working at the bench and thinking through complex scientific problems.

“I had an interest in science, but it wasn’t until much later in my career that I developed a deep passion for research and decided to fully pursue a career in academia.”

Khoa Tran

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I often feel that my colleagues always knew they were going to be scientists from a young age. For me, I had an interest in science, but it wasn’t until much later in my career that I developed a deep passion for research and decided to fully pursue a career in academia. After graduating with my bachelors, I took another five years and worked in three very diverse research labs before I found my passion for using chemicals to understand biological problems.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I love reading. My favorite genres are fantasy and historical fiction with my favorite book being the Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. I also enjoy cooking as I love eating (my taco record is 15 in one sitting) and I find cooking to be calming. I’m a pretty active person, I love to run and hike. As for my creative side, I enjoy building random things with Legos and drawing science-related comics (Check out JKX Comics)!

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
I think one of the biggest hurdles in science is the divide between scientists and non-scientists. Accessibility to scientific articles is a large issue but increasing access would not solve the problem entirely due to jargon. I think a big step towards bridging this gap could happen if publishers or the scientists themselves wrote a summary of their research in lay terms along with the research article. That way, individuals without the necessary expertise could understand the article and be exposed to more fields and research in STEM.

“My mom grew up on a farm in Vietnam and her highest level of education is a high school degree. When she immigrated to the United States after the war, she worked hard to learn English while raising and supporting three rowdy kids.”

Khoa Tran

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
Nicholas Cage was the one who got me into pursuing science in college, but my Mom is the one who believed that I could achieve my goal of becoming a scientist. My mom grew up on a farm in Vietnam and her highest level of education is a high school degree. When she immigrated to the United States after the war, she worked hard to learn English while raising and supporting three rowdy kids. It was her devotion to give us a better life that I realized I can achieve anything as long as I put the work in.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
I love running but I suffered a groin injury that prevented me from running for 3 months. I finally feel good enough to start running. So far it has only been short distances and at slow paces but this past week I was able to run 2.5 miles without feeling any soreness! It’s still far from what I’m used to but it’s a good feeling seeing myself make progress.

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