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In High School, Nguyen Discovered New Species

Connestee Falls scholarship recipient and 2019 Brevard High School graduate John Nguyen participated in his first science fair when he was in fourth grade. At the time he was still living in Riverdale, Ga, where he was born. His project involved studying erosion by testing how different kinds of rocks would break after they were placed in water and frozen. He finished in first place at the school level, but only third at the county level.

Determined to do better, in fifth grade he conducted experiments to determine which acidic fruits are most efficient at conducting electricity; lemons won, and so did John, taking first place at the county level. He has followed his passion for science ever since. He is fascinated by the scientific method of making observations, asking questions, conducting experiments and becoming an expert in an area of experimentation.

When John was in sixth grade, he, his mother and sister moved to Brevard to be with family members. The family lives in Pisgah Forest. John’s sister, Carolyn, is a student at AB-Tech studying pharmacology. His mother, Kim Hong Dinh, who was born in Vietnam, is co-owner of Elite Nails on Rosman Highway.

John became involved in the T.I.M.E. 4 Real Science program when he was a freshman at BrevardHigh School. He had heard about and became interested in T.I.M.E. when he was in seventh grade. He describes T.I.M.E. as “an amazing program” which gave him the opportunity to do college level research during all four years of high school.

In his junior year, he, his classmate Nicole Rideout and senior Matthew Bailey collected spray cliff plants at Lower Bearwallow Falls in Gorges State Park as part of their research. In the lab at BrevardHigh they studied the endophytes in the plants; they wanted to investigate novel sources of medicine produced by endophytic compounds. It was worth the effort; among their specimens, 29 plants showed inhibition against several bacterial and fungal diseases. The trios’ work earned them an Innovation Award from the Society for Science and the Public Community, and their research resulted in an article, “Finding a Natural Source of Medicine in Waterfall Plants,” which appeared in the blog of the Society for Science and the Public in July, 2018.

In their senior year, John and Nicole investigated the antifungal properties of cutaneous bacteria isolated from the green salamander, Aneides aeneus, an endangered species which inhabits moist rock crevices in the Appalachian mountains. They discovered not only five bacteria that showed antifungal activity against multiple fungi found on green salamander egg nests, but also a novel fungus which had never been described previously. Their work earned them first place in biological sciences at the state science fair in Raleigh, first place in biology from the U.S. Army and first place in biological sciences at the North Carolina Student Academy of Sciences competition. They will be presenting their research in Seattle, Wash., in February 2020 at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

John said, “Never in my life did I expect to discover a new species – in high school!”

In August John enrolled in Columbia University where he plans to study microbiology with a view toward working in the field of public health on novel methods of developing medicines from nature.

John’s path to Columbia was not direct. Accepted through early action at UNC-Chapel Hill, he had also applied to other “dream schools” but did not expect to be accepted. However, on “Ivy Day” in March things changed. He was attending a practice session for T.I.M.E. in preparation for the state science fair in Raleigh, and just before he was scheduled to do his presentation, he opened his phone and discovered a video from Columbia University. It took quite a while to load and play the video, but at the end there appeared a congratulatory message letting him know he had been accepted by the university.

The financial aid package he received – including the Connestee Falls scholarship – will go a long way towards covering the $81,000 per year cost of attending the Ivy League school.

When asked what he would like the donors and volunteers of the Connestee Falls Student Scholarship Program to know, he said, “Thank you for cultivating the next generation of leaders and for recognizing the potential in today’s students. You are helping alleviate the financial barriers which would prevent us from reaching our fullest potential.”

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