Eric Bui will spend his summer researching drug development for novel anti-cancer therapies at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
Eric Bui, a junior Honors College student majoring in biochemistry through Texas Tech University's College of Arts & Sciences, never considered himself an overachiever. While attending high school in his hometown of Simi Valley, California, he worked hard, but didn't take stock of his academic successes. It wasn't until he was named a National Merit Scholar that he realized his collegiate potential.
"In my junior year, I took the PSAT," Bui said. "Students who do really well on their PSAT are entered into the National Merit Scholarship Competition. I took the test not necessarily trying for anything. I didn't expect much to come from it, because winning a scholarship like that seemed like something other kids do. I was never that kid. But one day, my high school counselor summoned me to her office and said, 'You're a National Merit semifinalist.' And I said, 'Wonderful! What exactly does that mean?' She said, 'You don't understand. It's a big deal.'
"She had me fill out an application and write a few essays. After I had submitted them, I was notified that I had reached finalist status. At that point, my school started advertising me on our message board, and I thought, 'Oh, I guess this is a big deal.'"
It was Bui's National Merit Scholarship that led him to the state of Texas and, eventually, Texas Tech.
"My dad found out that there were a lot of schools in Texas offering significant scholarships for students like me," Bui said. "He was gracious enough to drive me out to Texas during spring break that year so I could visit a few schools. I visited Texas Tech, Baylor University, the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Dallas, and I liked Texas Tech the best.
"I certainly loved the campus, but I absolutely loved the way people talked about Texas Tech. I liked the way people who had gone to Texas Tech, and those who go to Texas Tech, talked about their experiences. They all seemed like they loved it. I was really moved by that."
Now, Bui has decided his academic journey should lead him beyond the classroom.
Undergraduate research opportunity
Bui credits a former undergraduate teaching assistant (TA) with getting him involved with research projects early in his college career.
"Amanda Miller was a senior when I was a freshman," Bui said. "She was a TA for my chemistry class with Dominick Casadonte. She was in Dr. Casadonte's lab doing research in inorganics. She got me into research.
"Through our email correspondence, Amanda suggested several professors she knew doing interesting research. At the end of my freshman year, I applied to the Undergraduate Research Scholars program through the Honors College, and I began interviewing with a few labs."
"Our work focused on gene regulation for a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is responsible for a lot of very deadly lung infections in hospitals, especially for cystic fibrosis patients and large-scale burn patients," he said. "I did that work for about a year."
Fulbright-Mitacs Globalink Fellowship
When Bui was a freshman Honors College student, he learned about the Fulbright program – a program that allows undergraduate and graduate students to conduct research abroad, among other things – through a few sources.
"Dr. Wong is a two-time Fulbright recipient," Bui said. "I was aware that she had to go abroad to do her work in Italian history. I knew I wanted to do something really cool like that at some point in my college career."
However, it was Bui's former roommate, Kabl (pronounced "Cable") Wilkerson, who really pushed him to get connected to the possibility of earning a Fulbright.
"I've definitely modeled myself after Kabl," Bui said. "He's a graduate student now. At the time, he was applying for all these really prestigious scholarships, and it was through him that I was connected with the National & International Scholarships & Fellowships Office and its director, Wendoli Flores.
"She sent an email out one day about a brand-new Fulbright scholarship. It was interesting to me because this one is a little bit different. This one is a unique partnership between Fulbright and Mitacs, a Canadian innovation nonprofit. Traditional Fulbright scholarships are for a duration of eight to ten months and are awarded to college graduates. This program is during a summer term while you're still attending university."
The Fulbright-Mitacs Globalink scholarship was developed by the Fulbright Canada program and Mitacs Globalink, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting research and training programs in Canada. The scholarship is intended for U.S. students interested in going to Canada to undertake advanced research projects for 10 to 12 weeks, between May and August, in their area of interest. This is its inaugural year.
When Bui became a finalist for the scholarship, he had to rank a few specific projects out of hundreds that interested him the most. He was fortunate enough to be accepted to his top choice, a project on drug development for novel anti-cancer therapies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
While he's looking forward to this opportunity this summer, Bui also is cautiously optimistic.
"The only research I've done so far was in microbiology, which I enjoyed," he said. "Now, I'm kind of taking a completely different direction with this project. This is more aligned with my interests in medicine because we are working directly with drug development. To be honest, I don't know too much about it yet."
Health care policy and education
Bui also has been interested in learning about health care policy, reform and education. Though he is looking forward to working toward finding new cancer treatments, he also plans to conduct his own, personal research.
"I want to get an idea of how health systems work in different countries," Bui said. "Canada has an entirely different health care system. I want to know how their health care infrastructure relates to their health care outcomes. Do they have better health care outcomes, by and large, as a result of their health care being available to all citizens?
"I don't know how a single-payer health care system could work in the U.S. However, I want to see how it works in other countries. If, someday, I go into health care policy or education, I want to be more educated as to how it works in different countries so I can inform how policy or infrastructure might work here in the U.S."
While his main priority will be his Fulbright project, he is going to take advantage of his time in Canada to learn as much as possible.
"Obviously, the research I'll be doing won't directly teach me about health care in Canada," Bui said. "Still, just being in Canada will surely be a learning experience. I hope to be interacting with Canadians and asking those questions for myself. The responsibility will be on me to educate myself about those things by asking questions and by observing how the process works there."
After Bui secured the Fulbright-Mitacs Globalink scholarship, Flores urged him to apply for a longer-term Fulbright. Bui is looking into that option and what projects he may want to pursue. He also is studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
"I'm applying to medical school this summer and taking the MCAT in April, so I'm absolutely swamped," Bui said. "Wendoli told me that if I begin an application now for another Fulbright program and am not initially accepted into medical school, I could potentially do a Fulbright scholarship in the gap year. Alternatively, if I do get into medical school, I could try and defer my acceptance, if they'll allow me. Then, I could spend time either working toward a one-year master's degree in public health or conduct research abroad somewhere else."
Bui admits he didn't feel qualified to apply for the Fulbright, but he's glad it didn't stop him.
"I didn't expect to be selected, which I think is probably a pretty common thing to say for students who get scholarships like this," he said. "This is a new Fulbright program, and it's a different type of program, but I've wanted to do something like this for a very long time. It was just something I simply never expected to happen to me.
"What was made clear through the whole process is that one needs to get opportunities in order to be granted more opportunities. It's a whole conundrum. It's like needing work experience to get a job, yet also needing a job to get work experience. I'm elated because I feel like this is a second chance for me to go further in research than I was able to last year."
Bui says he hopes other students take more chances on themselves when applying for scholarships or research opportunities.
"I didn't feel fully qualified for this endeavor, but I applied nonetheless," he said. "The Mitacs team must have liked something I brought to the table. Taking this chance reminds me that it just takes one person to believe in you. Sometimes, that person has to be you."