Nhu Phan

Nhu studies the enigma of stem cells

Nhu got interested in chemistry quite early in her schooling. After a Bachelor’s degree in her home country of Vietnam, Thi Ngoc Nhu Phan applied to come to Scandinavia for exchange studies. Today she researches new techniques for studying stem cells at the University of Gothenburg.

Nhu Phan meets the interviewer at the entrance to the Chemistry Building at Campus Johanneberg. She leads the way along a swarm of corridors. Petite and slim, she seems to glide effortlessly forth like a dancer, but it is in the Korean equivalent of karate that Nhu Phan gets her energy. She has black belt in it too. Finally, we end up on the floor in the Chemistry Building where her office is located and also the three laboratories where Nhu Phan performs various analyses using mass spectrometry and super resolution microscopy in order to better understand what the chemical drivers are of the process when stem cells develop into neurons in the brain.

The stem cells in the brain produce roughly a thousand different cell types, in total around one hundred billion neurons. Research has already identified how this development occurs at an overarching level, but the way it happens in detail and the mechanisms that control the whole process are largely unknown.

What is your research about?
“I’m developing sensitive chemical imaging methods using mass spectrometry techniques and super resolution microscopy to investigate stem cells.  Stem cells can develop into different cells in the body, such as skin cells, muscle cells, brain cells. My group and I study the process when the stem cell develops into a specific cell. In particular, our focus is on how the transition from stem cells to brain cells occurs. What drives that process? I want to understand why and how stem cells become brain cells and not other types of cells. I want to see how this happens at the molecular level and understand the mechanisms.”

In what ways is your research important to society?
“Stem cells can become any cell in the body, for example neural stem cells can become different types of cells in the brain. My research provides important basic knowledge about the stem cell process.  Stem cells are important in medical research because they can repair sick cells. For example, they can develop cells to replace tissue that has been destroyed. In the long run, this can mean the development of new treatments for a variety of diseases. Stem cell research can lead to many medical breakthroughs in the future.”

Nhu Phan

On the question of what challenges she sees, Nhu Phan says: “For me, there are limitations because I’m not an expert in everything in stem cell research and need to find good collaboration partners, and bring in new colleagues who have the knowledge I lack. It’s challenging but also very exciting because I can learn new things from them and expand my horizons.

How did you end up in Gothenburg?
“During my undergraduate studies I did a one-year exchange with Umeå University and during my Master’s studies I spent eight months studying at Roskilde University in Denmark via another exchange programme. I liked the environment and the people here in Scandinavia and wanted to come back here to do my doctoral studies. In 2011 I was admitted to a doctoral programme at the University of Gothenburg. I also met my husband in that programme, who is an American.

“After my doctoral studies I got an international post-doctoral fellowship from the Swedish Research Council for three years Two of those years I was at the University of Göttingen and one year here in Gothenburg. After that I applied for a position at the University of Gothenburg as an associate senior lecturer. I now head a small group of two doctoral students, one Swedish and one from Germany, and in the spring two post-docs will arrive, one from Ukraine and one from South Africa. We will be a very international group.”

Three questions for Nhu Phan

What do you most enjoy in your work?
“I like working in a team and I like the environment I find myself in here. It’s the perfect environment for my research. It has top class infrastructure. We work in an interdisciplinary way and collaborate with researchers who have other specialisations such as organic chemistry and biotechnology. We need different kinds of expertise. For example, we are also going to need biologists who work with stem cells in the future. All this collaboration is stimulating and fun. My group is relatively new, but I have a good feeling about them.”

What drives you as a person?
“When you get good results, that stimulates you to want to progress. But initially what drove me was that I liked the subject of chemistry itself; it felt natural and came easy to me. When I finished my undergraduate studies, I first went to a job in industry. But I felt that I didn’t belong in that world and didn’t want to stay there. It wasn’t challenging enough so I did further study and took a Master’s degree. When that was over, I couldn’t comprehend how fast the time had gone. So after my Master’s I didn’t want to stop there. That’s why I went on to doctoral studies.

What drives your research forward?
“I’m passionate about my field of research. My ultimate goal is to find the key to controlling stem cells so that we understand how they develop into tissue or neurons for example. I want to understand the chemical mechanisms at the molecular level and be able to control those processes. This can provide a springboard for others to then develop these processes into medical applications.”

Who inspires you?
“I’ve had teachers who have been super enthusiastic about science, and chemistry in particular. During my post-doc, I met one of the most energetic people in neuroscience I have ever met, Professor Silvio Rizzoli. He lives and breathes science. And during my doctoral studies, I got to see first hand how much a good team can mean to making progress. But ultimately my inspiration comes from my enthusiastic and creative students, post-docs and collaboration partners.”


Name: Thi Ngoc Nhu Phan, but called Nhu
Age: 40.
Position: Associate senior lecturer
Leisure interests: Reading novels, preferably fantasy. Regularly practising martial arts and I love playing with my two-year-old daughter.