Dr. Kelly Nguyen

by Dr. Sarah Keane

Dr. Kelly Nguyen is a Group Leader at the MRC-Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK. Dr. Nguyen received her bachelor’s degree with honors in Chemistry from the Australian National University. As an undergraduate, she recalls attending a seminar from Prof. Tom Steitz, which captivated her and inspired her to study RNA structural biology. Dr. Nguyen then earned her PhD from the LMB, where she studied the structural basis of spliceosome assembly in the laboratory of the late Dr. Kiyoshi Nagai. “During my Ph.D.,” she said, “I was struggling to crystallize the complex, and my former mentor Dr. Jade Li suggested cryo-electron microscopy as an alternative method. Back then, cryo-EM was still considered difficult for spliceosomal complexes. I convinced my supervisor Kiyoshi Nagai to let me try. The first structure I solved by cryo-EM contained not only the part I attempted previously using X-ray crystallography, but also many other components.” After her successful Ph.D., Dr. Nguyen then moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked on telomerase structural biology with Prof. Kathleen Collins and Prof. Eva Nogales as a Miller Research Fellow and HHMI Postdoctoral Research Associate.  

“Choose a problem that you are truly passionate about. Science can be unpredictable and challenging at times. Whatever the outcome, it is important to do what you really enjoy. And be resilient.”

Dr. Nguyen has now returned to the LMB, Cambridge to open her independent lab. After starting her lab, Dr. Nguyen focuses on telomerase structure and biology, drawing on her extensive expertise from both her graduate and post-doctoral training. The current emphasis of her lab is using high-resolution structural approaches to gain insight into this critical ribonucleoprotein complex. Researchers in her lab are also investigating how mutations in humans result in telomere dysfunction, which is important for the development of telomere-based therapeutics. Being an LMB alumna LMB, Dr. Nguyen pondered, “I enjoyed working at the LMB as a student, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to come back as a group leader. The LMB provides a very supportive and unique research environment, which made setting up the lab much more fun than I anticipated.” She is gradually building a research team, something that she said “is an entirely new skill for me to learn. It is a much bigger transition than going from PhD to postdoc.” Yet, she remains positive and optimistic: “I am very excited about starting to pursuing new ideas, which I couldn’t possibly do all by myself as a postdoc.” 

When asked about the advice she has for young scientists, Dr. Nguyen said, “Choose a problem that you are truly passionate about. Science can be unpredictable and challenging at times. Whatever the outcome, it is important to do what you really enjoy. And be resilient.” For budding structural biologists, Dr. Nguyen has more advice. “In structural biology, the final goals are often very well-defined, and the outcome could be all or nothing. This was one of the biggest challenges I encountered early in my career.” There is no easy way to overcome this challenge, but Dr. Nguyen suggested that when researchers find themselves in this position to “try to think positively, be proud of what you have done and learned and move forward to the next problem that you want to tackle.” Supportive and encouraging mentors and colleagues can also make “a huge difference.” 

Dr. Nguyen considers the RNA Society to be a “very close-knit and supportive” community. As a student, she participated in the RNA Junior Scientists events, which allowed her to “meet many other students and postdocs working on all aspects of the RNA world,” many of whom she still keeps in touch with. The RNA Society Annual Meetings have given her “opportunities to meet and have wonderful discussions with many great scientists, including my scientific heroes. Many have given me great advice and encouragement on future plans.” Her first RNA Society meeting was in Davos in 2013, and Dr. Nguyen and her colleagues traveled from Zurich to Davos by train. “During the train ride, we realized that everyone on the train was also going to the RNA meeting, and we could recognize many famous RNA scientists.” This experience, being on the “RNA Society train,” obviously added to the excitement of attending her first RNA Society meeting. 

Dr. Nguyen’s favorite RNA is telomerase RNA. You can find her on Twitter (@KellyTHD_Nguyen), where you can keep up with the latest and greatest in RNA structural biology and cryo-electron microscopy. When Dr. Nguyen is not in the lab, she enjoys baking and cooking and unwinds by drawing and exercising.