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Brian Vo in the lab.

Chemistry Graduate Cooks Up Success in the Lab

By Amanda Cairo

Chemistry graduate Brian Vo’s collegiate journey hasn’t been a straight one, but it has been one filled with opportunity working in labs, publishing articles and being a teaching assistant. It’s these accomplishments that he hopes will secure him a place in pharmacy school and beyond.

“I want to help people, develop a new drug,” say Vo. “I really think about what we can make and how it can potentially cure a disease. I want to be a part of that.”

The Portland, Ore., native transferred to the University of Idaho from Portland State University and Portland Community College after his sister, Thao, was accepted into the chemistry doctoral program.

“I really liked the program and the research here,” says Vo. “The research experience is a big part for me, there’s some really interesting people doing interesting research.”

That research and the learning opportunities have been an important part of his education at the University of Idaho. While not always earning straight A’s, it’s hard work, determination, and opportunity that made his lessons stick – and good experience. It’s also a family lesson, something instilled in him by his parents, who were Vietnam War refugees.

“My parents have always told me to do what I like, and do it well,” says Vo. “Sometimes I have trouble fully understanding the chemistry at first, but I love it and work hard to do it well. I don’t give up - that’s key to my success.”

Laying the foundation to one day create new drugs, Vo has explored chemical reactions in three labs on campus. Vo researched developing new and easier methods to join carbon compounds together to use in biological compounds to produce cleaner and greener reactions with assistant professor Jakob Magolan.

With professor Richard Williams, he performed similar experiments to create synthetic formations of new bonds, but with sulfur containing compounds, and with assistant professor Sofie Pasilis, he explored lanthanum chemistry containing large phosphate ligands using mass spectrometry.

“The professors that I have met here have allowed me to expand my capabilities and do more research than I imagined as an undergraduate,” says Vo.

Through his lab experience, Vo connected with an alumnus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and had the opportunity to conduct research there. Under the guidance of professor Jennifer Schomaker and Jared Rigoli, Vo published his first manuscript in Organic Letters, “Chemoselective Allene Aziridination via Ag(I) Catalysis” and second in the Journal of American Chemistry Society, “Tunable, Chemoselective Amination via Silver Catalysis.

“This was a huge accomplishment for me. It really shows that hard work will prevail,” says Vo. “I’m thankful to the chemistry department, they have been very supportive of my education.”

Beyond working in research labs, Vo has been able to connect with the learning process as a teaching assistant in a chemistry lab for a couple of semesters and as an organic chemistry tutor.

“It’s really strengthened my knowledge and given me a stronger love for chemistry,” says Vo. “To be able to reach out to someone as a peer and help them is very rewarding.”

Vo also is a volunteer at Gritman Medical Center in the emergency room, learning another side of medicine, taking patient’s vital signs, performing lab work, interacting with doctors and patients. It helps him bridge his major and minor, communications, to show how important effective communication is.

In addition, Vo also worked at the ASUI Kibbie-Activity Center, Vandal Connect and Sodexo. He was a peer mentor at the Office of Multicultural Affairs and was a conversation partner for the International Programs Office.

While Vo’s Idaho chapter comes to a close, his passion and hard work will be a catalyst in his next lab.