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Across an ocean, finding his dream

Senior Suan Tuang, a recent immigrant from Myanmar, excels at MIT in chemistry, cancer research, and leadership.
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Photo courtesy of Suan Tuang
Photo courtesy of Suan Tuang
Photo courtesy of Suan Tuang
Photo: Allegra Boverman

In 11th grade, when many high-school students are working on college applications, juggling extracurriculars, and taking multiple AP courses, Suan Tuang was doing the same. But at 16, Tuang was also striving to learn English, settle into a new home in a new country, and help his family navigate the financial straits of joblessness in the midst of the economic crisis.

“As a family, we were really struggling,” Tuang says. “We thought maybe we made the wrong decision: How long was this going to last?”

Tuang left Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) with his parents, two older sisters, and a younger brother in 2008, just two years before he entered MIT. He came from a rural village, called Tedim, that had few college graduates, and where he lived in a house with intermittent electricity and no running water. But Tuang now expects to graduate from MIT with a chemistry degree in June, and hopes to continue on to an MD/PhD.

“Growing up, I knew I wanted to be something different,” Tuang says. “I just didn’t know what that would be.”

A new home

As Christians in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country and as part of the small Zomi ethnic group, Tuang and his family were a double minority in Myanmar. In 2008, the family decided to migrate to the United States of America in search for a better life and future; some months later, the family boarded a plane, leaving behind the familiar and heading into the unknown. After a few nerve-wracking transits, they landed in Orlando, Fla.

Tuang had been studying English on his own for years to supplement his rudimentary language classes in school; in seventh grade, he began going to the local library to study grammar books left behind by British colonialists and to watch old movies in English. But once in the U.S., Tuang found that he struggled to keep up in conversation. ESL classes and hard work helped him improve, and he began to share his story with his ESL teacher, Jacquelyn Gomez, who had lived in Boston.

Gomez thought Tuang would be a good fit for MIT, encouraged him to apply, and helped him with his application. Tuang was accepted, and was offered full financial aid — enabling him to attend the Institute.

Suan Tuang Photo: Allegra Boverman

Tuang’s family had never heard of MIT before he applied, and they were skeptical at first. “My parents thought it might be a scam,” Tuang says. “It was just too good to be true.” After visiting for Campus Preview Weekend, his mother was convinced. Tuang entered MIT the following fall.

Now, Tuang’s parents have stable jobs, his two sisters are nurses, and his brother is a freshman at Brown University. Tuang has participated in cancer research in two different labs, has been a contributing author on two papers, and dreams of becoming a physician-scientist.

Into the lab

In his freshman biology class — 7.012 (Introduction to Biology) — Tuang listened closely as Robert Weinberg, the Daniel K. Ludwig and American Cancer Society Professor, explained cancer’s typical disease progression. In a chemistry class during his freshman year — 5.112 (Principles of Chemical Science) — he was intrigued by the explanation given by Richard Schrock, the Frederick G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry, of the cancer drug cisplatin. “One thing I heard during freshman year was that at MIT, there’s always someone doing something you’re interested in,” Tuang says. “So I thought I would put that to the test.”

Through a Google search, Tuang found Stephen Lippard, the Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry, who works on cisplatin. “I told Professor Lippard, ‘I do not have any prior laboratory experience, but I’m really excited and interested in your work,’” Tuang says. Lippard gave Tuang his first chance at research, starting in January of his freshman year.

Tuang’s first project involved the synthesis of cisplatin analogs, anticancer drug candidates with the potential to overcome resistance and improve efficacy. Next, he began work on another project at the interface of biological and inorganic chemistry, assisting in the creation of a synthetic model of the active site of an enzyme that converts methane into methanol, a synthetically difficult chemical reaction. This model would ideally perform the same function, but would be much less complex than the natural enzyme. The results of the research were published during Tuang’s junior year in the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry.

Through his work with Lippard, Tuang gained confidence in his research abilities. He also discovered a love of figuring out how to use chemical principles to design and make molecules for biological applications. “For me, that’s the beauty of chemistry,” he says. “Whatever you want to make, you can just design and synthesize it.”

As an Amgen Scholar the summer after his sophomore year, Tuang began research with Ralph Weissleder, the Thrall Professor of Radiology and Professor of Systems Biology, at Massachusetts General Hospital. There, he helped to tackle another cancer-related problem: how to find the right drug for an individual cancer patient. “Sometimes, patients are given chemotherapy treatment in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, and come back very worn out from the side effects, only to find that their treatment did not work; it did not treat the cancer,” Tuang says.

Because cancer can be caused by a number of different malfunctions within a cell — for example, any of a large number of proteins might be overexpressed, causing the cell to multiply too quickly — it is difficult to identify which problem a particular patient has and which drug to use for treatment. Weissleder’s lab found a solution, in research published recently in Science Translational Medicine.

“We developed a way to analyze all the key protein biomarkers that are associated with cancer,” Tuang says. In other words, the team found a way to easily measure the amount of each cancer-related protein — information a doctor could then use to prescribe the correct drug to a patient.

A dream draws closer

Tuang dreams not only of continuing research, but of practicing as a physician as well — an aspiration born of a ruptured appendix he suffered in ninth grade. Tuang was brought on a bicycle to a hospital 30 minutes away, where he was rushed to surgery. If it had been 45 minutes later, he might not have survived.

“Back home, we didn’t have a lot,” Tuang says. “Two things that we know we can have are our health and our loved ones. I lost my health. My parents could have lost a loved one.”

At the time, he and his family were frantic with worry. “What really got me was the empathy and compassion that my doctors showed us every day,” Tuang says. He wanted to do the same, but he knew that his was a community where people became construction workers and farmers — not doctors.

But at MIT, Tuang’s dream did not seem so far out of reach anymore. In January of his sophomore year, through the MIT externship program, he got the chance to shadow David August ’76, the chief of surgical oncology at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

“I saw him providing the empathy and compassion that I experienced as a patient five years before,” Tuang says. “Every day, helping patients — that really excited me. That was when I knew I wanted to be a doctor.”

As challenging as many would consider four years at MIT followed by the pursuit of an MD/PhD, Tuang feels at ease.

“For the first time in my life, all I have to worry about are my academics,” Tuang says. “Now, I have electricity at home; I have water to shower. I don’t have to worry that someone will knock on my door because of my personal beliefs.”

Tuang has kept his faith close to his heart. For the past six years, he has lived by his favorite verse, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

With his first few paychecks from his summer research in Lippard’s lab, Tuang bought a guitar. When he’s not busy with research and classwork, he teaches himself to play by watching YouTube videos. Last summer, he co-wrote a theme song for MIT’s International Development House, which he led as president last year. He plays basketball and soccer on the chemistry department’s intramural team, and helps run MIT ClubChem, a student group that builds community in the chemistry department.

“With everything, I push myself out of my comfort zone and just give my best effort,” Tuang says. He is glad to be where he is, and makes the most of every opportunity. As he wrote in a recent essay, “It was a hard path that led me to MIT, but it continues to inspire me as I go forward.”

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