Working Side by Side at UMD, Quynh and Thu Nguyen Use Big Data, Technology to Study Health Disparities
Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle
Most up-and-coming researchers wouldn’t appreciate being mistaken for their scientist younger sibling. But when a colleague called Thu Nguyen, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, “Quynh” last year, she couldn’t help but laugh.
After all, her sister is only 15 minutes younger.
“They didn’t know that my twin had arrived at UMD,” said Quynh Nguyen, an associate professor in the same department at the University of Maryland since 2017.
Even though the fraternal pair looks no more alike than your average siblings, they understood the initial mix-up. They’ve been on the same path almost their entire lives, earning their undergraduate and master’s degrees from the same schools in the same majors. After a brief time apart, they’re back together now, doubling their department’s expertise on topics such as social media, racism and discrimination, and health disparities.
“Sometimes (siblings) feel like, ‘I need to be as good or better than my sibling,’” Quynh said. “Our relationship’s more collaborative.”
The pair was inseparable growing up in San Jose, Calif., and even when literally racing each other on the high school cross-country team, they always felt more of a sense of cooperation than competition. They’d often share notes and study together, leading them both to the same pre-college summer program at nearby Stanford University.
Although designed to give students a taste of what it would be like to attend medical school, the program was founded by a social epidemiologist. Her focus on social and structural factors and how they relate to health sparked the Nguyens’ interest more than the medical science, launching their dual paths into the public health world.
Next came undergraduate degrees in human biology back at Stanford and master’s degrees in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina before Thu “had to split off and go to Harvard” for her Doctor of Science degree, Quynh joked, while she got her Ph.D. at UNC.
After a few years working at separate institutions, a job opening in Quynh’s department at Maryland last year allowed her to reunite with Thu. But just like the twins themselves, their research here is similar, not identical.
“It’s somewhat distinct things we work on,” Thu said. “Even when we work on research projects together, we manage different people and tasks. We have our different spaces and roles.”
Quynh, for example, focuses on how built environments and neighborhoods impact health, like by using Google Street View to identify indicators of COVID-19 or obesity. Thu is more focused on racism and discrimination, including the relationship between health care discrimination and biomarkers of cardiometabolic risk, and she leads the interdisciplinary research collaborative, Big Data for Health Equity (BD4HE).
Those often intersecting areas of expertise—along with the twins’ shared experience leveraging social media and big data—have meshed well in recent collaborations. One such study used tweets to explore links between racism and birth outcome in areas across the United States, and another similarly analyzed Twitter data to show that anti-Black racism fell only temporarily after the killing of George Floyd in 2020.
“Their research topics are pretty complementary. That’s the reason why naturally, I think they’ll be a great research team (at Maryland),” said Xin He, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Besides that, he added, the Nguyens are both responsive and efficient, sharing a positive working attitude.
Working alongside someone you’re so close with, though, doesn’t come without its challenges. Separating project time and family time can be tricky when your research partner is visiting with her kids or stopping by for a family dinner, the twins said. But that tight-knit relationship can also make it easier to share opinions—with each other and the whole team.
“We know each other’s personalities, and we can just directly say what’s on our mind and be like, ‘That’s not gonna fly,’” Quynh said. “We’re establishing a collaborative and open channel where people can contribute and also appreciate other people’s talents.”
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