woman looking through a microscope

DCG graduate’s ‘ultimate gift of working with her father’ closer to reality

Even before graduating from high school in Riverdale, Georgia, Cathy Tran always wanted to become a dentist. Not just that, but she wants to open a dental practice with her father in order to help the underserved. Now, as she prepares to graduate from the Dental College of Georgia, she’s one step closer to that dream.

Tran’s parents emigrated from Vietnam in the early 1990s. Her dad has been working as a dental lab technician, and that’s where her interest in the field started.

“He was never pushy about it,” said Tran. “He just kind of let me see his work and said ‘I think you’d like it because you like working with your hands.’ Eventually, I just found my own passion for it, and he was there beside me, not pushing me but just walking me through it.”

a family of 5 posing in a church
Cathy Tran (right) with her parents and siblings.

Her journey to Augusta University and DCG started seven years ago. She had applied to several schools but received notification from AU saying she was accepted into the Professional Scholars Program, which had both a Medical College of Georgia and the DCG component, and she ended up getting into the Dental Scholars Program.

“It was such a great opportunity that I couldn’t pass it up,” said Tran.

Her undergrad work consisted of getting a Bachelor of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology in the College of Science and Mathematics. She then transitioned into the Dental College of Georgia and hasn’t looked back.

“Reflecting back now, especially now that I’m at the end of my seven years in Augusta, I definitely think it was the right decision,” she said. “It just allowed me the environment to grow personally but also academically and with peers who are like-minded.”

“I think it would be the ultimate gift that I could give back to not just my parents, but community in general. Everyone has been so supportive of me, and there’s no way I can express my gratitude to everyone. Maybe if I can help other people the way they helped me, that can be my gift.”

Cathy Tran

Tran has been very active outside the classroom in student organizations and is heavily involved in research. She has attended major conferences in Portland, Oregon, and New Orleans and participated in national and international competitions based on her research.

An abstract of the projects she has participated in was submitted to the conference of American Association for Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Research. As a DCG junior, she was selected as one of nine finalists from dental students across the country to compete in the prestigious Hatton Award.

This year, Tran was selected again as a finalist for the Hatton Competition and finished second, which qualified her work to be part of the international finals. Additionally, she was awarded the AADOCR Bloc Travel Grant and named the 2024 Mark Ritz Research Scholar by the Pierre Fauchard Academy.  

Her passion for the field beyond the classroom has separated her from others.

Ranya El Sayed, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Periodontics, who is the primary investigator working with Tran, has seen firsthand what makes Tran’s work stand out.

“She and one of her other peers, Tiger Yang, used to come together after hours, and I trained them in a lot of research techniques in the beginning,” said El Sayed. “After I saw how comfortable they were doing the experiments on their own, they would come in after class or on weekends to change the media on the cell culture, which required that the experiments be done at specific points in time. Tran showed a lot of dedication to the work, and I knew she would do a lot in research.”

Woman in a white Dental College of Georgia lab coat works with a tube in a lab

One of Tran’s research projects titled “Engineered human dendritic cell exosomes as effective delivery system for reprogramming immune response in periodontal disease” focuses on exosomes, which are nanovesicles secreted by all our cells and serve as “envelopes or messengers” that transport information from the parent cell to recipient cells. She added that the study looks at exosomes as a potential nanotherapy for the treatment of periodontitis and whether those “messengers” affect the progression of periodontal disease.

El Sayed is impressed with her professionalism and is sure Tran will succeed in anything she sets her mind to.

“One of the things that makes Cathy stand out is how organized she is,” said El Sayed. “She’s very organized, very meticulous about her work. I could see that in her notes; I could see that in her writings. Her critical thinking and insightful questioning are important qualities for success in any career. She has a bright future ahead of her, and she’s going to go far in her career.”

Tran gives all the credit to El Sayed since she’s always pushing for students to get recognition for the work they do in the lab.

“I never imagined that I’d have the opportunity to go so far in research, and that’s 100% thanks to Dr. El Sayed. She was an amazing mentor and understood exactly what it was like to be a student,” Tran said.

Woman smiling with a white coat on, outside in front of a pink blossomed tree
Cathy Tran [Michael Holahan/Augusta University]

There’s a lot of stress involved in being a dental student and researcher, and there are many challenges. The advice she received early on is as simple as it gets take it one day at a time.

“What are the immediate things that are due the next day? Tackle them first and then don’t worry about the rest because that’s the only way you can narrow down your focus on to something that’s a little bit more manageable,” she added.

Following commencement, Tran will join the Prisma Health Richland Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, where she will do a one-year general practice residency. She’ll be able to work on perfecting her skills and will give her the opportunity to work with more medically compromised patients. This also will give her the chance to see if she wants to pursue something else in the dental field.

Tran has always had the desire to work with medically compromised patients, which came to the forefront while watching her parents.

“As immigrant parents, they’re always prioritizing their kids. Their kids go to the dentist, their kids go to the doctor, but they may not get regular care for themselves,” Tran said. “I would also love to kind of educate older people in these immigrant communities on how to take care of themselves, too, especially in dentistry.”

Tran also published an article in the American Student Dental Association’s magazine that gives a nod to her father. The article was titled “Unsung Heroes in Dentistry: Dental Lab Technicians,” which details the challenges of the profession with respect and affection.

Continuing her current track, the dream of working with her dad is a very obtainable goal.

“I think it would be the ultimate gift that I could give back to not just my parents, but community in general,” Tran said. “Everyone has been so supportive of me, and there’s no way I can express my gratitude to everyone. Maybe if I can help other people the way they helped me, that can be my gift.”

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Written by
Kevin Faigle

Kevin Faigle is Media Relations Specialist at Augusta University. Contact him to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at kfaigle@augusta.edu.

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Avatar photo Written by Kevin Faigle

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