Helen Vuong, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, has been named a 2023 Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences by the Pew Charitable Trusts. 

"It is an honor to be selected,” said Vuong. “I'm grateful to the Pew Charitable Trusts for supporting my research to understand how microbes interact with the maternal environment during pregnancy to impact long-term brain health of the offspring. I'm excited and look forward to joining the Pew Scholar community."

Dr. Vuong’s research concentrates on comprehending the factors that influence maternal-fetal health. In a broad sense, she is particularly intrigued by the environmental aspects during pregnancy that affect fetal development, particularly the brain. She will also investigate how these pregnancy-related factors can have enduring effects on overall brain health.

Additionally, Dr. Vuong investigates the earliest stages of development, delving into the intricate process of how brain cells establish connections and initiate communication. She is interested in understanding how alterations in this communication and connectivity during pregnancy can have enduring effects on the behavior of offspring and the overall functioning of the brain.

Driven by a deep interest in neuroscience, Dr. Vuong underwent training in neurobiology during graduate school, focusing primarily on electrophysiology. However, her mentor sparked a fascination with the microbiome, especially the microbiome's impact on the brain. 

The microorganisms that make up the microbiome have a wide range of effects on our bodies. They can affect many different aspects of our health, including the function of our immune system, the health of our digestive system and even how our brain works. 

Her mentor’s revelation of the gut's ability to profoundly affect brain function was significant. Motivated by this, Dr. Vuong delved into studying how maternal microbes during pregnancy influence both the mother's health and the development of the fetus or offspring.

“The idea of trying to target early life during pregnancy time is really fascinating to me because I think many people think they know a lot about pregnancy. But it's probably a very understudied area of research,” she added.

Although this research direction was not initially planned during her graduate studies, Dr. Vuong’s excitement for science drove her forward. “​​It was a steep learning curve,” she recalls. “But overall, I think it's important in science that we follow the data and the interesting questions and not be afraid to pursue things just because it's new to us.”

The Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences program empowers exceptional early-career faculty members to pursue independent research. Dr. Vuong, chosen from a pool of 188 nominees representing renowned U.S. academic and research institutions, has been granted four years of funding to invest in exploratory research.

It’s crucial for new researchers who, like Dr. Vuong, are pushing the frontiers of science to receive this kind of recognition and funding.