Asian Heritage Month: a profile of Ly Vu

May 23, 2021

Briefly introduce yourself and your research area.

I'm an assistant professor of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at SFU, and a scientist at the BC Cancer Agency’s Terry Fox Laboratory. I'm from Vietnam, and I moved to Vancouver in 2019 to start my independent research group that studies a molecular mechanism underlying blood cancer.

What inspired you to be a scientist?

I’ve always had a curiosity about nature. While I was working in a lab during my undergraduate years, I loved discovering and working on things that people had not known before. One of the driving forces that keeps me in academia and encourages me to develop myself as a scientist is my passion to develop an effective therapy for the treatment of cancer.

What do you love most about your work?

Translating what we do in the lab into treatment and helping patients to overcome disease makes me want to wake up in the morning and go to work and push forward every day. Also, I love interacting with my trainees ‒ all the smart, young people with young minds ‒ as well as working with amazing scientists. It’s never-ending intellectual stimulation.

What are you proud of?

A couple of months after my lab opened, COVID-19 hit. Despite the difficult situation, my trainees worked hard. Thanks to them, we were still able to grow as a team and drive science forward. I'm proud of how resilient and supportive they are.

What kinds of barriers in your work or studies have you faced?

I wouldn’t call it a barrier but there was a cultural difference that I had to overcome. As a woman, the expectation I grew up with was to be soft, humble, reserved, and less assertive, which is common in many Asian cultures. In some ways, these traits backfire in Western culture. If we don't speak up, people think we don't know or don't care. We need to get out of our comfort zone and raise our voices. It’s hard at the beginning but once you get used to it, you will benefit from it. You just have to be persistent.

Even now as an independent scientist running my lab, I occasionally get overlooked as the only woman with an Asian name in a panel of experts. I could just let it go. But when I looked at my trainees who saw panels that were largely men, I felt I had a responsibility to speak up. Once, I called the chair and said, “this is not right.” Since then, I have been trying to change the underrepresentation. People have an unconscious bias against Asian people because they think we don’t have the guts to talk, but I want to prove them wrong. I advocate for that as a senior, so whoever comes after me can benefit from it.

Why are the barriers higher for Asian scientists?

I would call them cultural differences rather than barriers. People come from different backgrounds. If you look at a person and notice that they come from a different culture, you shouldn’t judge them right away based on what you know. Perceptions of Asian people aren’t always correct.

What suggestions do you have on how to make academia a diverse and inclusive space?

We should give people in minority groups more opportunities to explore and show their capabilities. Providing successful examples can be effective. By listening to stories that are similar to theirs ‒ how others overcome certain obstacles ‒ they’ll realize that success is attainable.

We know what the barriers are but that’s not enough: We need real action. If there is an underrepresented group, we need to reach out to them to understand their specific needs. Giving them incentives and establishing a scholarship or mentorship program that directly caters to their needs will be helpful.