Pre-Dental Grad Excels in Research
Hanging from a light pole near the University of St. Thomas Academic Mall, was a banner featuring “Biochemistry Major Writes 4th Journal Article on Biomass.”
Jennifer Hoang, clad in her red UST Presidential Ambassador polo, arms crossed, posed in front of her lab inside Robertson Hall, smiled at the camera. The photo was taken two years ago, when the biochemistry graduate was only a sophomore and her second research article was published.
Hoang graduated in UST Class of 2016. She studied biochemistry and as a pre-dental student she was also a researcher who honed her communications skills at several conferences.
On campus, she was a Presidential Ambassador, often the first friendly face that greeted university visitors. Her knowledge of the university was enhanced by her position as the Chair of the Council of Clubs, a leader among leaders, while an active member of three on-campus organizations herself.
And perhaps most relatable to her fellow college students, she worked in retail.
Hoang revels in the thrill of activity. She does it all because she knows she can and because she has to. The hustle and bustle of having things to do and places to be propels her forward to accomplish what seems like an endless list of tasks to do and people to please.
Excels in Research Articles
In the four years Hoang attended UST, she was credited as a co-author in three journal articles on the production of alternative energy resources and a fourth is on the way. In past articles, Hoang’s mentor and advisor, Associate Professor of Chemistry Dr. Elmer Ledesma, was the lead author. Last year, Hoang was the lead author.
“Jennifer has had a lot of experience with our research,” Ledesma said. “And I thought, ‘She’s ready. She’s ready to be the lead author,’ so I let her.”
Hoang’s rise to published research began in the summer of 2013 as a rising sophomore. Ledesma, Hoang’s then-professor for Introduction to Chemistry, invited her to join him and his research team, impressed by Hoang’s studious attitude.
By the end of that year, Hoang and her peers were credited as co-authors in a research article that illustrated the development of a potential alternative to modern day energy production in the compound eugenol. It was published in the journal Energy and Fuels.
“Eugenol has a special place in my heart,” Hoang said. “When I was shadowing with a dentist I’d be like ‘Oh, what’s that smell? It smells like eugenol!’ I didn’t know this but eugenol was being used in dentistry, and I thought that was so cool, because two years after I’d done this research, I see that, yes, there is a connection to dentistry that I never knew about, and it’s all just coming together.”
In 2014 and 2015, Hoang was named co-author for subsequent articles published in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research. She has even presented the research at several conferences, including one in Austria.
Just as the next stage of the project worked to develop a mechanism, she, too, is a growing process, a mechanism in development, and each step forward is her next stage of potential.
By the Skin of Her Teeth
“I didn’t brush my teeth for an entire year.” —Jennifer Hoang, Dental School Application Essay, on her fear of dentists.
Hoang never intended to go into research, much less to have had the foresight of three research articles published.
Though she revels in her research, Hoang held on to dreams of dentistry, and the University of Texas Health Science Center Houston School of Dentistry (UTSD) was her castle in the sky.
“Every time I imagined myself in dental school, it’s always been there,” Hoang said.
Hoang’s dream of attending UTSD began while she was in high school. Ingrained with the idea that success was synonymous with academic achievement and a well-paying career, Hoang chose to attend DeBakey High School for Health Professions. Though Hoang would meet both her best friend Marianne Tran and her boyfriend Chi-Tam Paul Nguyen there, her decision to attend DeBakey was a surefire way toward a career fueled by her father: a career as a medical doctor.
“I have always felt lost in my family’s expectations that I become a medical doctor,” Hoang said in her dental school application. “It was always their dream and for a time, I mistakenly believed it was mine as well.”
Hoang’s junior year at DeBakey culminated in preceptorships, in which students could get hands-on experience in various medical specializations. Hoang shadowed an OB/GYN and chased doctors in the emergency room.
“It was interesting, but it just didn’t click with me,” Hoang said. “I couldn’t see myself there. I admired the people who were there but I just wasn’t passionate about it.”
It was when Hoang participated in her dentistry preceptorship with UTSD did she realize dentistry would be her calling. She recalled lectures discussing cariogenic exposures, drilling cavities, biomaterials and casting impressions and molds.
“You see results, and you come out with treatment plans,” Hoang said. “That’s when I thought ‘This is really cool. This is what I want to do. I can see myself doing this.’”
The end of her junior year and the beginning of her senior year—both busy with research, campus activities and work—was punctuated with looming application deadlines and interviews for dental schools.
Late at night on Nov. 30, 2015, Hoang sat at her desk, her UST email account open on her MacBook. Up since 5 a.m. that morning for an early shift at her retail job, Hoang was exhausted, but her late night served two purposes: one, to finish a paper due the following Wednesday, and two, to wait.
The clock struck midnight—now Dec. 1—and she received an email. University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio School of Dentistry, her second school on the list, accepted her.
Hoang heard nothing from UTSD. Her anxieties were not misplaced when students on online college forums were announcing their own acceptances into the school.
“I didn’t feel so good about the interview,” Hoang said. “I was nervous and I don’t think I did as well as I could have. I felt like I kind of knew I wasn’t December 1st material.”
Though Hoang was excited and grateful for her acceptance into dental school at all, she was still mildly discouraged.
“We’ll see what happens,” she said.
On Jan. 5, 2016, Hoang was driving down Richmond Avenue when her phone lit up, an email notification flashing briefly. The sender’s domain was from UTSD.
“The first chance I got, I opened the email,” Hoang said. “I didn’t really even read it so much as scanned it because I was looking for certain words, and it said I was accepted. I got into UTSD!”
Hoang proceeded to call her boyfriend Paul and then craft an excited Facebook post.
“In that moment, everything I worked for was worth it,” Hoang said. “Everything culminated to this one thing I wanted so badly, and I finally had it.”
Later that afternoon, her mother called and congratulated her.
Hoang hadn’t told her mother of her acceptance; rather she had learned of Hoang’s acceptance through Facebook.
The Hoangs: A House and a Home
Hoang, her mother, her grandmother and her half-brother live in a modest condominium amidst a small Vietnamese community just north of Hobby Airport. Hoang’s mother and 9-year-old half-brother Steven sleep in the living room. Hoang’s grandmother stays in the first bedroom and Hoang sleeps in the second.
Hoang and her immediate family aren’t close. Her father left the family when she was just a child, and Hoang describes him only as a “typical Vietnamese dad.” She doesn’t associate with him.
Her relationship with her mother is strained at best. A language barrier often prevents Hoang from communicating with her. Hoang spends little time with her brother Steven because of the silent tension between Hoang and her mother. She knows he enjoys watching action shows on his iPad.
When it comes to Hoang’s grandmother—a stroke victim—seeing her can be emotionally draining for Hoang, so much so that Hoang said she can’t spend more than five minutes with her. She settles briefly with an “I love you” before leaving her grandmother’s room.
Hoang credits her grandmother the most in raising her. The stroke left her physically disabled, causing Hoang’s mother to become a more active parent. Her parent’s early divorce and her grandmother’s stroke lead Hoang to accept the idea that the world didn’t revolve around her.
“No one was looking after my grades,” Hoang said. “It sounds like it’s such a small thing to care about even now, but I just think it’s nice that someone would care enough to say ‘Hey, why did you make this bad grade?’ or ‘You need to work harder if you want to be better.’”
But Hoang understood the importance of a good education, and she learned adulthood—young as she was—meant responsibility, that no one would babysit her.
Hoang worked as a receptionist for a medical office while in high school. She used the income to help support herself since her family was on government assistance.
“My mother had so many burdens to endure and I did not want to be an addition to her list,” Hoang said.
Though Jennifer’s mother and grandmother do not speak English and Jennifer cannot convey her expressions well enough in Vietnamese, the stubborn love they share does not need to be spoken in words. Their living situations, both past and present, has fueled Hoang with strong ambitions.
“In every community, there are those who struggle,” she said. “I want to help these individuals because I know how it feels to endure difficulties that bring pain and suffering. Every individual has a dignity that must be respected regardless of circumstance.”
“The letter said ‘Oh dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is for my uncle to have a girlfriend and to have a TV.'” —Jennifer Hoang, on a ‘Dear Santa’ letter she wrote in 3rd grade, published in the Houston Chronicle. Hoang’s wishes were both granted that year.
Some of Hoang’s most treasured memories are of spending time with her uncle Peter Nguyen and his wife Elaine Le. The youngest brother of Hoang’s mother’s sibling, Nguyen used to take Hoang to plays, movies, and concerts, unknowingly fostering her love of the arts. Hoang’s most vivid childhood memories are of happily tagging along on Nguyen and Le’s movie dates before they married.
Nguyen and Le have two small children: a 4-year-old-boy and a 2-year-old-girl. As both children and siblings, they chase each other, tease each other, and cry because of the other. Both vie for Hoang’s attention when she visits. She’s happy to indulge them.
Le’s siblings visit frequently. There are about a half-dozen of them and they enter the small house en masse, eager to catch up with Hoang, all of them close to her in age. They bring with them a popular drink of choice: milk tea, punctuated with tapioca balls, sipped through a big, colorful straw. The small house livens up with noise and the kids trade their tantrums for toothy smiles, stealing the attention of the cool, young adult crowd.
The Lioness’s Den
“She’s somebody you want to be around, and you like working with her because she makes work fun. But she’s also somebody who checks in on you. If you’re a customer or a coworker or maybe just someone she sees around a lot, she’s one of those people who want to get to know you.” –Katherine LeNoir, Hoang’s supervisor at her retail job.
Among many of her part-time jobs, Hoang works as the assistant visual merchandiser for an apparel and accessories retailer..
“My favorite shifts are when I’m doing visual stuff because you’re focused on one particular task, not trying to do a million things at once,” she said. “You have that level of control in making something look really perfect and you’re focused on that particular task.”
But only part of her busy schedule is a result of an internalized ambitious drive. One factor is the money. Though she received the UST Alumni Association, Presidential and Voss Memorial scholarships, Hoang paid the remainder of her tuition and additional expenses out of her own pocket.
How Hoang maintained her busy schedule of a full-time course load while working up to 40 hours a week was perplexing. Even Hoang’s friends found her intimidating at first, but they’ve all grown to not only become a vital support system for Hoang, but for each other as well.
The Support System
“Shorter than me; she has to be Catholic, and she has green eyes. And her name is Jennifer.” –Paul Nguyen, recalling how a friend in high school created a list of the characteristics Paul was looking for in a girlfriend. (At the time, Hoang wore colored contact lenses). A friend-of-a-friend chain resulted in Hoang receiving the list.
Should the circumstances get tough, Hoang first turns to her boyfriend, Chi-Tam Paul Nguyen. Paul, two years Hoang’s senior, attends the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. A year into medical school, he is considering specializing in either emergency medicine, internal medicine or surgery. Much of his time is spent on campus studying or working on his own projects. Every few weeks, Paul returns to Houston to spend his weekend with Hoang.
The pair met while attending DeBakey High School. After months of struggling with how to display their feelings with one another, Paul finally asked for Hoang’s number over a Facebook message under the guise of a “Nigerian King Jabar,” a title he pulled from the infamous email scam of the mid-2000s.
“We were on the phone and then he asked me ‘Do you want to make it official?’ and I was like ‘What?’,” Hoang said. “He didn’t want to say the words boyfriend and girlfriend, but I said yes, and we became official.”
The next day, they completely avoided each other at school.
But the awkwardness of adolescent romance only developed into a years-long relationship, one that continues to flourish with snarky comments, teasing displays of affection and a determined commitment to the other.
They even planned when they’d prefer to be engaged; how their engagement/marriage would work upon Paul’s anticipated move during his residency years; and even their kids’ names.
“We know we want the first boy to be named John Paul, after my favorite saint,” Hoang said. “I like that for short, we can call him JP. JP—as in J in Jennifer and P for Paul.”
“Jennifer let me know that you can’t stop asking these questions. She won’t tell you what you should think and what you shouldn’t, but she lets you be independent, lets you understand on your own terms. Jennifer is going to tell you not to give up, and she’s gonna be there and help you through your journey, regardless of what it is.” –Jacqueline Vo, recalling a moment where Hoang helped her in a crisis of faith.
In her free time and oftentimes in the midst of business between clubs, research and study, Hoang managed to find time to spend with her best friends, recently graduated biology students Marianne Tran and Jacqueline Vo. The former was the president of the Student Activities Board and the latter the vice president of the biology honor society Tri-Beta.
Hoang and Tran’s friendship blossomed over a period of years, beginning at DeBakey High School, but their friendship truly began to grow upon realizing they were both admitted to UST.
“Of all the people from my school coming here, I was like ‘Marianne’—I singled her out— ‘I’m gonna make that girl my best friend,’” Hoang said.
The two are complementary of each other, both seeing the other as fulfillment of what each considers their weaknesses. Hoang is the rational, logical thinker and motivational speaker while Tran leans toward heart and compassion.
Tran said Hoang has been a primary motivator in her life, often spurring her out of her comfort zone or driving her to improve herself.
“She’d be the one telling me ‘No, come on! Study! You can do this! I believe in you!’ and I’ll do it,” Tran said. “She’s always been that kind of push in my life.”
Hoang meanwhile considers Tran a guiding light.
“She inspired me to be better than who I am,” Hoang said. “There are times where I see myself as selfish and very mean sometimes, but with her she’s just level-headed, compassionate, and very calming, so she inspires me to be like that.”
But underneath all the seriousness, Hoang’s friends noted that Hoang can be very silly. Amanda Ingersoll Villanueva, UST’s Assistant Director of Student Activities agrees with Tran and Vo’s assessment of Hoang’s goofiness, and she also saw a potential leader in Hoang, as someone who was eager to “pour herself into the community.”
“There was something innately wonderful about Jennifer that you see and that you want to develop. You could just tell from the get-go that she was really a huge asset to this community,” Villanueva said.
Hoang’s contributions to the university have been more than her involvement in extracurricular activities. Villanueva recalled Hoang hand-painting a thank you card for the UST Alumni Board and, upon receiving a the Marsha A Wooldridge Citizenship Award (an award established in memory of a UST student and bestowed to a current student during UST’s leadership banquet), Hoang called the mother of the late student and struck a conversation with her, thanking her.
“I see her professionalism and how she carries herself and walks into a room and owns it and just how she’s so graceful,” Villanueva said. “I joke that she doesn’t have grace, that she’s goofy and whatnot, but she has an air of professionalism about her that no other student can come close to and I’ve always said I’ve looked up to her for that reason.”
Similarly, Hoang looks up to Villanueva herself.
“She’s just been there for me,” Hoang said. “When I’ve been stressed out and just guiding me in terms of leadership, like making a decision and how to approach somebody. It’s really nice having a female figure like that at St. Thomas.”
Though Hoang was often in the throng of students as the COC Chair, she has also held a meaningful relationship with her mentor, advisor and professor, Elmer Ledesma. His guidance has led Hoang to admire him as one of the most influential people in her life.
“Sometimes I’ll just be stressed out and need to vent to somebody,” Hoang said. “Of course you’ll talk to your friends, but they’re going to talk as your friends, and not like a person who’s like a father figure—a wise person. He has definitely had an impacted.”
Ledesma said it was privilege to know Hoang and to be her mentor in such a crucial point in her life.
“I’m quite proud,” Ledesma said. “I’m really proud of Jennifer for getting where she is right now. She’s put in all this effort these past years into her classes—all her extracurricular activities, dedicated time to research and now she’s actually got what she wanted. She’s ready to move on to the next stage of her life.”
Looking back, Hoang is tearfully appreciative for all that Ledesma has provided for her. From chemistry homework guidance to quotidian catch-ups to heart-to-heart counsels, Ledesma has become the confidante Hoang may have never known she needed before meeting him. Hoang said she owes much of her growth to him.
“I started off at St. Thomas here with chemistry courses with him, and I’m kind of ended it with him as well,” Hoang said. “It’s like a huge cycle.”
“At St. Thomas, we always talk about faith and character, but she’s one of the few people I think that actually exemplifies that.” –Jacqueline Vo, on UST’s “Educating Leaders of Faith and Character.”
Finally, and certainly not least, there is God.
“Faith and character aren’t superficial things to her,” Vo said of Hoang. “They’re important aspects of her life and her personal relationships.”
Hoang draws inspiration from the trials and tribulation of her life. She likens her experience to the Book of Job, where she thinks God could be testing her. Frustrated by her circumstances while growing up, Hoang said her early exposure to Catholicism was by way of habit.
“I’m Catholic, but I took the procedural path,” Hoang said. She attended Mass on Sundays and acted according to how she was raised in terms of religion. “I had an interest in it but I didn’t really have the opportunity to learn more about my faith.”
Her decision to attend UST was based mainly on her end goal of becoming a dentist, such that the high academic standards were the perfect environment for her to cultivate pre-dental skills. UST being a Catholic institution happened to be coincidence—and a coincidence Hoang was grateful for.
“UST helped me deepen my faith and really understand why I believe in God and why I believed in the Catholic Church,” Hoang said. She was particularly grateful for the theology and philosophy courses. “They allowed me to understand myself better: how I interact with others, how I see others, how to show more compassion for other people, how I treat others.”
Beyond Catholic academia, Hoang has looked to God as a source of strength and perseverance. For all that Hoang has endured—in her family life, both as a child and now as an emerging adult, and the stresses she endures now—she aligns with Christ’s suffering and later his ascension to heaven.
For Hoang, in the end, she believes all she’s been through has been worth it.
Among Leaders Looking Ahead
In her role as COC chair, Hoang was selected to speak to the University of St. Thomas Board of Directors on Jan. 28, 2016.
“I think a lot of people don’t associate undergraduate research with a Catholic liberal arts university,” Hoang said. “So I think by allowing students to have the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research, whether it be in the sciences, or theology or psychology, we really give students the opportunity to further themselves.”
In a reception after the Board meeting, Hoang was quickly approached by several Board members. Among them was Cecilia Abbott, civic volunteer Board member, UST alumna and wife of Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
“It’s about putting a face to the name,” Abbott said. “Seeing these students and meeting them, knowing who we make these decisions for, it really matters.”
Though Hoang enjoyed herself, Abbott remembered her from their previous encounter at the Major Donors dinner in 2014, Hoang, as often as she did, looked to the future.
“I can see why something like this is a big deal,” Hoang said after the event. “Like ‘Oh, I get to meet these important people,’ but it’s not really like that. Once you’re there and you get to know them, they’re all just… people.”
The same can be said of her. No matter what is thrown her way, no matter what achievements she yearns for and receives or fails to receive, she is ultimately, a person. A person with hopes and dreams, with experiences dashed and triumphed, with a network of friends and family who support her, cherish her and love her.
In the heightened complexities and contributing factors that have led Hoang to where she is now, she does not react, but rather acts, and drives her own destiny.