Jean Pham '17

Psychology alumna wins award for non-invasive diagnostic technology

Experience with interdisciplinary collaboration prepares Jean Phuong Pham ’17 for master’s program

June 18, 2020   /  

In April, Jean Phuong Pham ’17’s team won first place in the medical devices track of Tufts University’s $100k New Ventures Competition, an annual event held by the Tufts Gordon Institute and Tufts Entrepreneurship Center in which teams working on startups compete for prizes and in-kind services that total more than $100,000.

Pham is currently working on her dual degree in innovation management and human factors engineering at the Tufts School of Engineering, where she met her teammates. She has been working with her team, called Cellens, on a revolutionary non-invasive test that quantifies physio-biomarkers on cell surfaces extracted from urine samples to provide a diagnostics score for bladder cancer. Cellens offers an alternative to the current invasive, expensive, and often inaccurate bladder cancer test options. The team also won the Ricci Interdisciplinary prize in the competition for their teamwork. “Our team comes from different backgrounds and represents various engineering expertise,” Pham said. “I work with a professor of mechanical engineering and teammates with biomedical engineering and data science backgrounds, so we are lucky to have a very interdisciplinary team.”

When Pham started looking for master’s programs, she knew she wanted an educational environment like the one she had at Wooster. “We learned to do projects independently but also collaboratively,” Pham said. “I knew I wanted that kind of education in my master’s program as well. I specifically looked for schools that were innovative, interdisciplinary, and extremely collaborative.” Tufts, she said, has “state-of-the-art research labs and facilities but also a very liberal arts kind of education where people who have diverse backgrounds meet and work on projects together,” Pham said.

A psychology major at Wooster, Pham says knowledge of the discipline helped her work well with her engineering-driven team at Tufts. “My psychology major taught me a lot about growth mindset and how to bring people from different backgrounds to work together and achieve the same goal,” she said. While all of her Wooster professors made an impact on her, Pham said her Independent Study and academic advisor Claudia Thompson, emerita professor of psychology, was particularly helpful. “She knew me very well on a personal level and really pushed me out of my comfort zone to try things she thought I would enjoy,” Pham remembered. “I was super impressed and am super thankful to this day for all of the attention and care that I received.” In addition to her major, Pham found Wooster prepared her well to be able to succeed in future endeavors. “The critical thinking, writing, speaking, and communicating skills that I learned at Wooster contribute to where I am now and the decisions that I’m making with my career path,” she said.

Pham also recognizes that the opportunities and funding she received from the Advising, Planning, and Experiential Learning (APEX) center at Wooster helped her explore her interests and narrow her career path. “APEX really did a great job of pushing students out there and funding all of the internships and experience so we could actually try out different things before we commit to a career,” Pham said. “They did a phenomenal job.”

The coronavirus pandemic has changed Pham’s studies and work, but her team has made the most of it, continuing their development of Cellens. The recent $100k New Ventures Competition was held virtually, which the team was well-prepared for because they have been conducting interviews online and over the phone to do their market research. While the lab in which the team was working has been closed, Pham says that the impacts of COVID-19 have shown how important diagnostic products like Cellens can be. “It’s a very exciting time right now, actually, to work on a diagnostic product that is non-invasive,” Pham said. “With the impact of COVID-19, people understand how good diagnostic testing could save lives.” Pham and her team continue to develop Cellens in hopes of doing just that.