As Johnny Truong’s Georgia State Journey Ends, Another Begins

Every great student needs a great mentor. Johnny Truong says he was fortunate to have one relatively early on. “I had a really great high school chemistry teacher who thought I could do a lot more than what I was doing, so she sent me off to a summer program for chemistry students,” he says. “There I really learned not only that there’s a lot more to science than I thought, but it was also something I liked to do on my own. I think from there it really inspired me to go into science as a career.”

With that motivation, and the help of a number of scholarships, Truong followed his scientific curiosity to the Honors College at Georgia State, where he says he was blessed with more excellent mentors and advisors. They’ve helped propel him to the next step in his life journey: graduation earlier this month, then a postgraduate degree on the other side of the country — and even more discoveries to follow.

Mentors Showing the Way

Truong says he was inspired to pick Georgia State based on the positive experiences of a fellow student at Meadowcreek High in Norcross, who’d earned a long list of scholarships and attended college basically for free. That motivated him to pursue scholarships himself, and his efforts were richly rewarded — in addition to the HOPE Scholarship, he received the Netzel Scholarship, named for a beloved former chemistry professor, as well as the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Fellowship.

When Truong arrived on campus as an honors student, he says he was surrounded by capable professors who took a genuine interest in the types of research he wanted to do. In particular, Professor Dabney Dixon “is an amazing inspiration,” he says. “She’s a huge source of motivation, but also the epitome of what you aspire to be as a scientist. She has taught me a lot about understanding not only how to be a good scientist but also how to communicate it to the people who matter the most — society and the younger generation of students, as well as to other academic professors. She really launches students’ careers in terms of helping them talk to the right people, getting them interested in things as early as possible, and supporting their ambitions and long-term career goals.”

Dixon and other professors opened the door to a variety of research opportunities not typically available to undergraduates. In the laboratory of former professor George Zheng, Truong explored the field of epigenetics and how chemical processes can create markers for diseases such as diabetes and cancer; with Dr. Jun Yin, he investigated enzymes involved in cellular signaling and protein degradation that, should they malfunction, can lead to disease.

Not only did Truong get to participate in high-level research with real-world applications, he did so on the way to becoming part of the first generation in his family to attend college. “It’s an amazing opportunity, and a lot of it has really come from the nurturing and care from the Honors College, from the chemistry department here at GSU, and from my research advisors,” he says.

The Real World Awaits

Truong’s professors also helped him get connected with an internship where his chemistry research found real-world applications of a different kind. After being named a Society of Chemical Industry Scholar, he spent last summer at Great Lakes Solutions-Chemtura in West Lafayette, Ind.

“As an intern, I was working on reproducing patented flame-retardant materials for internal company evaluation and generating new formulations to use as potential flame retardants,” he says. “It was very interesting, doing research that was truly applicable in everyday solutions — we did flame-retardant solutions for your clothes, for furniture, for electronics, and it was a great experience to see how chemistry is used every day to solve relevant daily problems or contribute to something in society.”

The next stop on Truong’s journey: graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. “I visited the campus, and it was mind-blowing,” he says. “I think transitioning from the south to another university in a whole other region will be an exciting new chapter for my career.”

And Truong says he already has an idea where he wants that career to end up — in a college classroom, opening up the same opportunities for future students that his Georgia State professors opened up for him.

“Eventually I’d like to go into academics and become a professor at a university, doing research and teaching — that’s my long-term goal. And, hopefully, I can give minority students and those from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunities to build their interests early on, and show them how to see their challenges less as a handicap and more as inspiration to achieve greater things.”