DSC 0689It all began with Ms. Sue.

Ms. Sue wasn’t famous, and she probably never set any world records. She didn’t have that exhilarating career that children typically dream of having. But for one young Vietnamese girl, a chance meeting with the kind nurse practitioner who worked at a small health clinic set her down a path that would shape the rest of her life.

“I remember being 12 years old, filing out health paperwork for my mom,” said 24-year-old Jacqueline Vo, a doctoral student in the School of Nursing at The University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Some places have translators, but being in a small rural town, that just didn’t exist. But we had Ms. Sue. She was so kind and patient. She would sit with me and break down everything step by step to help me translate to my mom. I knew then I wanted to be just like Ms. Sue.”

Even though the young Vo had decided on her career path at the age of 12, she still dabbled in other interests, particularly those of the artistic vein, throughout high school. She enjoyed web design and photography, and she became a nail apprentice when she was 16. Vo loved having that creative outlet and spent many hours fueling that artistic passion.

But her end goal was always nursing. After graduating high school in 2011, Vo came to UAB to pursue her Bachelor of Science in nursing degree.

“I knew UAB would build my career but I didn’t realize how much,” Vo said. “My first semester in the nursing program I had an amazing clinical instructor who made it possible for us to watch an open-heart surgery. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m looking down at a beating heart.’ I absolutely fell in love and knew that was what I wanted to do.”

UAB not only played a large role in her clinical nursing career, but her experiences as an undergraduate student also changed her overall career goals.

As an undergraduate student in the nursing honors program, Vo had the opportunity to see what research was like while still being hands-on. She worked with breast cancer survivors in local communities teaching them breast health, survivorship and healthy living to improve survivorship. She was able to see patients outside of the hospital and help them learn how to make their lives better when they leave the hospital. She knew working with young breast cancer survivors was something she wanted to pursue in the future, but she wasn’t sure how exactly that would happen.

Vo graduated with honors from UAB in 2014. Shortly after graduation, her mentor, Dr. Karen Meneses, encouraged her to pursue her Ph.D. in nursing, but Vo wasn’t ready for that path just yet. It did, however, put the thought in her head that maybe she would pursue a PhD eventually — many years down the road.

“I had my career built, and getting a Ph.D. wasn’t part of it right then,” she said. “When you go to nursing school, you don’t usually go to be a researcher. You go into nursing to be a bedside nurse and work hands-on with patients.”

Vo continued down the path she had planned and began her nursing career in the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit at UAB. She spent a year working with open-heart surgery patients, and she loved witnessing the patients’ progression from sick to healthy. However, she began noticing that some of her patients had a history of breast cancer.

109YBCSN 2016“It was then that my mentor reached out and told me there was a new field looking at cardiovascular risk with breast cancer patients,” Vo said. “I knew that was it. I would be able to take my undergraduate research experience and combine it with my clinical experience and do something important that would make a difference in the lives of these young breast cancer survivors.”

Vo became the first Robert Wood Johnson Future of Nursing Scholar at UAB. Not only was she jumping from a bachelor’s degree to a doctoral degree, but she would also have to complete the Ph.D. program in three years, which she is on schedule to do with an anticipated August graduation date.

She has been immersed in research since starting her Ph.D. and currently works as a research assistant with Dr. Meneses on several community-based projects including Think Well: Healthy Living to Improve Cognitive Function; Young Breast Cancer Survivors Network; and SurviveAL.

“We have a social media-based resource center, and I created online content for breast cancer survivors,” Vo said. “I drew animations and narrated a short survivorship video. We also have monthly support groups and when I’ve hosted, we’ve done make-up nights and nails. I have been able to bring in my other passions and implement a lot of my creativity into my research, which has been great.”

Vo was also an intern for the Kirklin Institute for Research in Surgical Outcomes where she had the opportunity to learn data analysis and methodology for outcomes research.

Her current research looks at the various chemotherapy drugs breast cancer patients receive and the cardiovascular risk associated with those drugs. One in particular, doxorubicin, also known as the “red devil,” is highly cardiotoxic. Vo hopes to take the findings from her current study and build upon it.

“I want to establish an understanding of cardiovascular risk with young breast cancer survivors,” Vo said. “I want to improve the survivorship of cancer survivors. After they’re diagnosed, what can they do to not only live a long life, but a life that’s high in quality, a life they can be happy with and not have to deal with long-term complications.”

And she is on the right track to do just that. She was recently selected for the National Cancer Institute Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program, the first from UAB School of Nursing chosen for this prestigious fellowship, where she will train in cancer prevention and control.

IMG 1122From there, Vo plans to pursue a career development award that would take her to her first faculty position at an academic health science center or research institution. She hopes to become a full professor and have funding to establish a program of research that helps cancer survivors improve their survivorship.

“I have big goals,” Vo said. “But starting at such a young age allows me to have a long career ahead of me so I can pursue all of the jumping for the moon and stars.”

But those dreams would not have been possible without the experiences and knowledge gained at UAB.

“Not every institution has the opportunity to walk across the street to the hospital, but we have all of these amazing medical resources right here,” Vo said. “The interdisciplinary research teams are also key. You can come from nursing, epidemiology, medicine or even a basic science perspective and all come together to better patient care. And the faculty, particularly the nursing faculty, have been so incredibly supportive. They are sincerely interested in how they can help propel you forward and build you up. It has truly been an amazing experience.”

That amazing experience has, in large part, come from Vo’s balance of education and passion. While she loves the research and knowledge being gained, having a creative outlet has helped balance the rigorous life of a Ph.D. student.

Weekends when she’s not working with breast cancer survivors in the community, Vo can be found readying brides for their weddings as a freelance makeup and hair artist. She also spends as much time as possible doing nails. She would even do her patient’s nails when she was a cardiac nurse at UAB.

“I have a very creative outlet and being able to release that helps keep me sane through this Ph.D. program,” she said. “That would probably be the biggest piece of advice I would give to young people today. Pursue your passion. My entire career, even my hobbies, everything I do has been based on my passion. Figure out what you really want to do and do really well at it. If you love your job, then you’ll never really work a day in your life.”