Thuc-Quyen Nguyen, an award-winning researcher at UC Santa Barbara and Director of Center for Polymers and Organic Solids, has made significant contributions to modern organic electronic devices as a means of improving global access to electricity. By using organic compounds and manipulating the packing of molecules, Nguyen and her team progress towards a future of cost-efficient solar devices. 

Not only is Nguyen a prolific pioneer in her field, but she is also making strides for AAPI women. Nguyen’s nontraditional journey from her childhood in Vietnam to her college, post-graduate, and research experiences in the U.S. have come to shape her view and impact on today’s world.

Nguyen lived her childhood and adolescent life in the town of Buon Ma Thuot, Vietnam. Growing up, she did not have access to most basic needs, including food, water, clothing and electricity. Nguyen recalls how she and her family had to fit their daily schedules to the patterns of the sun, often going to bed and waking up early to make use of their time in the light.

“Because of that difficult life, I have a lot of creativity and motivation,” Nguyen said. “I always dreamed that if I could capture the sunlight and put it into a jar then I could use the night-time to study, read books and do something.”

Nguyen’s life in Vietnam was never devoid of imagination and the opportunity to learn. In fact, she was able to discover her inherent passion for teaching at a young age; with four generations of teachers in her family, including her mother. Nguyen was readily exposed to the art of teaching. Without access to child-care, Nguyen often attended her mother’s classes, and there she began to gain a better understanding of the classroom and grow keen toward it. 

“I remember one day I got bored playing with my sister and I decided to stare at the classroom and watch my mother,” Nguyen recalled. “I watched the students take notes and listen so well… I remember saying, ‘wow, when I grow up I want to be just like my mother.’”

At the age of 21, Nguyen and her family moved to America, where she began her commitment to learning the culture and language of this new place. Her dedication to adapting to a new society manifested itself as she took heavy loads of classes and attended regular tutoring as a means of improving her English.

“It is terrifying as [international students] have to face culture shock… I went through all of that; I understand it very well,” Nguyen shared. “Still, you have to put yourself out there … to learn and adapt quickly.”

In 1995, Nguyen graduated with her associate’s degree and went on to receive her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at UCLA. It was during her time at UCLA that Nguyen had her first exposure to research. She joined a biology lab where she learned to navigate herself around the lab environment. Just like any other undergraduate students, Nguyen engaged in basic lab processes such as cleaning glassware and carrying out fundamental procedures. Nguyen treated this opportunity with much gratitude and appreciation. 

“When I came to college, I was so curious about how things work…I would open drawers to look at the different shapes of glassware,” Nguyen said. “For students, I advise to question everything; learn about cleaning, [ask] ‘why is cleaning important? What happens to the reaction if there is soap in the glassware? What happens if the glassware is contaminated?’”

After finishing her time as an undergraduate, Nguyen continued to build her passions in chemistry at UCLA, where she earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in Physical Chemistry with the initial goal of getting a company job. 

“During the interview process, I realized that with my personality and my passion, I love the freedom to do things on my own and dig deep into a problem,” Nguyen reflected. “It is hard to do that at a company level; I realized that I would not be happy there.”

Nguyen continued to explore the field of chemistry and molecular electronics while doing postdoctoral work at Columbia University under the guidance of professor Louis Brus and the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. During this time, Nguyen switched her major and research groups multiple times until she affirmed her desire to pursue chemistry.  

Nguyen especially encourages students who are currently pursuing their collegiate endeavors to “pay attention to understand the process of learning something. If you know how to do that, later when you go on to real life, you know the process of how to acquire knowledge and learn things on your own. You have to learn how to learn.” She believes that no matter what degrees students end up obtaining, the ability to cultivate new information in a short period of time is the most valuable.

In July 2004, Nguyen was hired by UCSB to take on the role of assistant professor at the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, a culmination of her educational achievements that intertwined her disciplines in chemistry and teaching. “I did not know whether to apply for only a teaching position or research,” Nguyen said with a laugh. “So I did both.” 

Today, she continues her role as a full-professor while maintaining her passions of chemistry both through her teaching and research group. 

“I really, really, love my job, and that is the reason why I work a lot,” Nguyen said.

In addition to her research and teaching endeavors, Nguyen acts as an academic life-coach to more than 40 students across the globe, some of whom she has never met in person. 

“I cannot return the favor to the people who helped me, but I can pass on this to younger generations,” Nguyen said. 

In this way, Nguyen tries to support as many students as she can by sharing her wisdom and giving guidance to students in need. 

Nguyen’s non-linear path toward obtaining her dream career is an example that showcases the importance of perseverance and adaptability in the field of the sciences. Above all, she advocates for a piece of advice she hopes all people can resonate with and strive towards:

“You need to learn your strengths and your weaknesses,” Nguyen affirmed. “The strengths, you can use to your advantage. All of us have weaknesses, at least one. Put in the effort to plan what we can do to improve [those weaknesses].” 

Today, Nguyen stands as evidence for the scientific community of UCSB students and scholars worldwide that having a drive and a strong goal is the key to living out one’s dreams. With determination and a well-founded plan, she affirms the ability of students to achieve their personal versions of success. After all these years, Nguyen was able to fulfill her childhood dreams of capturing the sun’s light within her research and now hopes to help others fulfill their own.