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Minh Do: Out of her Element

WVU Ph.D. candidate

Minh Ho

As a global collective, many different industries are looking at clean alternatives. Here at West Virginia University, Ph.D. candidate Minh Do, along with her colleagues in the lab of Carsten Milsmann, are working to find a cleaner approach in chemistry.

“The playground is pretty open for us just go in and explore."

Do is originally from Vietnam but when she was 15, she joined an exchange program to come to the United States. She hasn’t left since.

In 2016, she arrived at WVU to study chemistry as a Ph.D. student and has worked with her lab to understand the fundamental reactivity of earth abundant metals.

Specifically, she has focused her research efforts on the chemistry of zirconium, a silver-gray transition metal and element highly resistant to corrosion. Its benefits are that it’s relatively cheap, environmentally-friendly and safer for the human body than many other metals.

From her research, Do and her colleagues found two things: 1) The zirconium compounds they designed can absorb light and utilize its energy to generate reactive chemicals under ambient conditions without heating or other additives; and 2) using blue light, they can generate new molecular structures, which have not been seen since this type of research began in the 1970s.

Do only started conducting research when she got to WVU. Beforehand, she earned her undergraduate degrees in French and chemistry from Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania, and her master’s degree in international business from Hult International Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“That first semester (at WVU) I walked into the lab and the only thing that was not intimidating to me was the water faucet,” Do said. “Everything was so new. Everybody came in this very linear path that they've done research in undergrad so they kind of have knowledge of how that works, and me, I had to re-read my textbooks from undergrad but I really enjoyed the learning process.”

Do started researching zirconium with direction from her advisor and says that her inspiration comes from the desire to learn and understand how different metals work.

“The playground is pretty open for us just go in and explore,” Do said. “To ask questions like, ‘How does this work and why does it behave this way?’ so that somebody can take this to the application level and have enough information to do it right. Again, the goal is just to study how these earth abundant metals work and how we can lay the groundwork for an approach to do chemistry in a more sustainable way.”

Aside from her work, Do is learning how to sing in Swahili and Zulu by taking classes because she is fascinated with language. In addition, she loves to cook.

After she completes her Ph.D., she is completely open to what comes next.

“I have used Google calendar since 2010 and back in high school, before 2010, I had my life planned out for the next 10 years but none of it worked out,” Do said. “I'm so thankful that it didn’t and that life has taken these twists and turns because slowly I'm starting to see how it fits into the bigger puzzle.”

Do doesn’t see herself going straight into another research lab post-graduation. But she’s not opposed to the idea. She wants to use her foreign language and international business background in a comprehensive way but she doesn’t have a concrete plan for what her next step will be.

“Sometimes life shuts doors and opens others in such a weird way so I am trying to be open minded, so I can go where the opportunity is.”

Written and photographed by Caylie Silveria