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Vietnamese refugee finds solace helping others


Cuc Tran

Emerging Pathogens Institute

The fishing boat was small, just big enough for the fishermen and the 86 people packed into the hull, each person lying flat and still to avoid being seen. If the Vietnamese authorities caught them, they could be sent to prison—or possibly killed.

Cuc Tran, then 3, huddled on top of her mother’s chest. It was 1988, 13 years after the fall of Saigon, and Tran’s mother had decided to flee with her tiny daughter.

They almost didn’t make it. Miles from shore the boat broke down during a typhoon. The passengers had no water and only powdered porridge to eat until they were rescued by Malaysian fishermen.

The fishermen were the first of many to help Tran in her life. Now, she wants to do the same for others. That is one reason she has chosen to pursue a career in public health as a researcher with UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.

“People often don’t realize how big an effect their acts of kindness can have on a person,” Tran said. “Because of others’ kindness whether it be opportunities, support or love, it has shaped me into the person I am today.”

Tran is also grateful for the unique experiences she had as a UF undergraduate and master’s student. She visited the Dengue Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Puerto Rico and conducted field work in Panama on Alston’s singing mice—vocal rodents native to Central America—to understand their cognitive approaches to mating. She also traveled with a group of students and faculty to El Salvador. The group conducted public health needs assessments of the country’s most disadvantaged groups.

Tran received a master’s degree in public health from the College of Public Health and Health Professions in August 2009. In her position with EPI, she helped lead a project to immunize Alachua County’s schoolchildren against the flu. The campaign resulted in a 66 percent immunization rate, the highest in the state and possibly the nation. The team is now planning for the 2010-2011 school year.

“We have enough vaccine to offer high school students the opportunity to participate, which means 30,000 children in our community are eligible for our program,” Tran said.

After she pursues a doctoral degree, Tran hopes to become a professor and empower people who want to change their lives and communities through public health.

“My life is proof that little changes people make do help,” Tran said. “Because of those little changes, I’m now making a big change through the flu program.”

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