Born just after the Vietnam War, Ngo spent much of his childhood hiding and fleeing with his family, who struggled against the communist regime to keep him in elementary school.
On rainy days, he recalls, his grandfather carried him on his back through the mud two miles to school. "As I was on his back, he often whispered to me, 'We have been peasants generation after generation, and the only way to get out of this cycle is through an education,' " Ngo says.
Ngo was forced out of school when the authorities learned that his father was a soldier who fought the communists.
On their 13th attempt to escape from Vietnam, Ngo and his family arrived by boat at an Indonesian refugee camp. Ngo spent four years there, hunting for food instead of pursuing an education.
Yet when his family arrived in Southern California in 1992, he went right into La Quinta High School in Westminster. "I enrolled myself," Ngo says. He was 17. In two years, he learned English, graduated and earned a spot in UC Irvine's undergraduate program in biological sciences.
Ngo had a goal. In Vietnam and Indonesia, he'd seen what happened when medical attention was not available. Ngo was taken to the hospital when he was 9 years old, but "when my family wasn't able to come up with the amount of money requested, they just slammed the door in our face." In the refugee camp, "people were sick and hopeless, unable to help their children get over such curable diseases as malaria," he says. Becoming a compassionate doctor is Ngo's lifelong dream.
When he was accepted at UCLA for graduate studies in physiological science, he "read through all the faculty descriptions" and decided that R. James Barnard's work on the impact of lifestyle factors in chronic diseases "sounded really interesting," Ngo says. "Working with Professor Barnard turned out to be a great decision."
Barnard would agree. "Tung is one of the most remarkable students I have had in my 33 years as a professor at UCLA," he says.
Among the projects under way in Barnard's laboratory is research on the links between diet, exercise and prostate cancer. In one study, a group of men agreed to change from a lifestyle of high-fat diet and little exercise to a program of low-fat, high-fiber diet and regular aerobic exercise. Blood samples were taken from the men before and after their lifestyle change. Then, in the laboratory, prostate cancer cells were introduced to the serum derived from those blood samples.
"It was remarkable to observe the stimulation of prostate cancer cells in the serum of men who do not diet and exercise," Ngo says. "Following an intensive diet and exercise intervention, the serum seems to inhibit growth. I was able to show that some of the cancer cells actually undergo a form of cell death." Ngo is first author on a paper reporting the results.
In a related experiment, Ngo studied the growth of prostate tumors in mice on lifestyle programs similar to the ones in which the men participated. He hoped to identify which genes are activated to produce the outcome of cancer stimulus or suppression.
With a past full of struggle, Ngo looks forward to a future of equal accomplishment. "I appreciate what I have here," he says. "The most satisfying thing, the thing that would give meaning to my life, is to do something about what I've seen."
Tung Ngo received his Ph.D. from UCLA in June 2002. In August, he will enroll in medical school.