Ann Vuong is a new assistant professor at the School of Public Health’s department of environmental and occupational health, who had never been to Las Vegas until her job interview. Taking a chance on a new city, she hopes to move public health forward through collaborative research, inspire students to realize their capabilities, and try the special foods and outdoor activities Vegas has to offer
What is your research focus?
In my previous research at the University of Cincinnati, I examined endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their associations with neurodevelopment in children. For example, I looked at IQ, higher-order cognitive thinking, ADHD-like behaviors, and others. While I still study this, I am hoping to now focus more on chemical exposures during pregnancy and subsequent maternal cardiometabolic and bone health over a decade after delivery.
What inspired you to pursue your research?
When I was young, I wanted to be a pediatrician because I loved working with children. When I was at Baylor University, I was a pre-med student interested in learning not only biology, but also child development. I spent time at Baylor’s childcare center to observe interactions between children and to learn more about the role that family dynamics play in physical and mental health. After my bachelor’s, I decided to get a master in public health before medical school at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health, and was able work on research projects with professors focused on perinatal and pediatric health, specifically birth defects. I became so interested in epidemiological research — analyzing data and writing manuscripts. When it was time to apply for medical school, my fear became, “What if I get in?" rather than "What if I don’t get in?” So, I decided to instead get my doctorate in epidemiology to improve public health on a population scale rather than on a person-to-person basis.
I wanted to come to a place where I can move public health forward and collaborate with people who love UNLV and love research. What’s interesting is that people here are researching children’s health, but in other focus areas from my own. I hope to incorporate a little bit of everyone else’s work into what I’m doing and vice versa. It’s important to get other people’s perspectives and learn from them in order to make your research stronger. Faculty here are working on topics like physical environment, childhood obesity, chronic diseases, and more. By collaborating, we can produce stronger research that will improve public health in the long run.
Being new to the Las Vegas area, what surprised you?
I was so surprised to find out that UNLV is the most diverse campus in the nation. It’s nice to be at a place where you see lots of different people, as well as those who are similar to you.
Also, my first time in Las Vegas was actually for my job interview with the School of Public Health. I was surprised to learn that there are so many opportunities for physical activity. People outside of Vegas think of the Strip, casinos, gambling, and drinking. They don’t really think about living here. There are mountains nearby for snowboarding, wakeboarding at Lake Las Vegas, and bike trails. This is something I’m excited about.
What is public health to you?
I think public health boils down to this idea of hope — that you can do something to improve your life and the people around you, whether it be increasing physical activity, reducing smoking and drinking, creating green space around you, improving air quality, and so forth. These are things that may not result in huge change for one individual, but you can move the dial for the population. Public health itself is giving people the power to decide how to live their lives and what they envision it to be.
If someone is interested in a health-oriented career, what pathways are available through public health?
Through public health, you can still help people in our communities. A lot of students assume their only options are to be a nurse, doctor, or physical therapist. Even in high school, they don’t often hear about public health or know about the other career paths available to them. Public health is more than just working at the health department. There are so many areas. You can be an epidemiologist at a pharmaceutical company, work in labs like the Environmental Protection Agency, do fieldwork, or be a health educator. Public health isn’t always just sitting behind a desk looking at numbers either. You can physically go out into the community and work with people and help change behaviors.
What are your interests or hobbies outside of your research?
I like being active so I do a lot of physical activities. I like biking and hiking, and I enjoy snowboarding with my husband. Board games are fun, too. If anyone is looking for a new fun game, I suggest the deck-building board game, Clank!
I’m also a huge foodie, and Las Vegas is foodie heaven! I especially like Asian cuisine. I get excited about all the various kinds of buns, Korean barbeque, and Vietnamese soups… and there’s a lot of durian here!
What is your proudest accomplishment so far?
A few come to mind. The first is when I defended my dissertation and got my doctorate. A lot of women struggle with questioning themselves and their capabilities. When I earned my doctorate, I accomplished something I didn’t think I was able to do, so that was big for me. In regard to the research, one big accomplishment came out of the published findings from the HOME (Health Outcomes and Measures of the Environment) study I was previously a part of. The study led to the push for removing polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), flame retardants that were added to consumer products to prevent the start of fires or slow the spread of fires, from the market. With other researchers in the U.S. and around the world, we as a collective group were able to influence the decision to phase the chemical out.
On a personal level, my family and I took a road trip in Europe after I got married. We’d never done anything like that before. I came from a poor background, and growing up, my family rarely traveled. I never even went out of state until I was a doctoral student, so I really appreciate experiences and opportunities like that.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
First, I want to continue my research and get my first research project grant funding from the National Institutes of Health. Next, as I become a more experienced instructor, I hope I can pay it forward and inspire students by helping them see what they can achieve. Students have a lot of passion, but sometimes aren’t aware of what they’re fully capable of. I’m an example of that student now, sitting behind a desk — on a side where I never thought I would be.