Last week, as high schools in North Carolina and California basked in the glory of having captured top prizes at a national science competition, Baltimore's Ingenuity Project quietly celebrated a smaller victory.
Tam Nguyen, a city student enrolled in the Ingenuity Project since the sixth grade, had been named a semifinalist in the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology.
Nguyen might not have brought home the highest prize, a $100,000 scholarship, but that didn't stop coordinators of the Ingenuity Project - an advanced science-and-math science curriculum offered in a few city schools and funded by a nonprofit group - from considering their glass half-full.
"This is like, 'Yoo-hoo! We finally made it at the Siemens after years of attempting to,'" said Dolores Costello, the project's director.
Nguyen, 17, a senior at Polytechnic Institute, is noteworthy not only because she's the first Baltimore student to make it this far in a national science competition in recent memory, Costello said, but because she represents the reason the Ingenuity Project was formed 11 years ago.
"The question was asked, 'What would it take to have [a national competition] winner from the Baltimore public schools?'" Costello said.
The straight-A student, who emigrated from Vietnam at age 6, said she did not expect her research on cancer cells to qualify her for the semifinals, much less become a symbol of success for the Ingenuity Project.
"I was really, really surprised by it," she said.
Of 12,000 students who entered the competition nationwide this year, about 270 were named semifinalists, including Howard County students Stephen McCarthy and Anqi Fu, who attend River Hill High School in Clarksville.
Ask Nguyen about her project, and she'll launch into a detailed description of the hundreds of hours she spent in a lab at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, trying to figure out why cancer cells died when she inhibited a certain gene found in the cells. The ultimate goal, she said, is to understand how to isolate the gene-inhibition treatment to cancer cells and avoid harming healthy cells.
A moment later, Nguyen sounds like a teenager again, chatting about her hobby of singing Vietnamese pop songs at parties and on her family's karaoke machine.
Although friends urged her to pursue singing, her parents steered her toward a career in medicine, she said.
"Ever since I could talk, my dad has always wanted me to be a doctor," Nguyen said. "It gave me a lot of pressure, trying to please my dad and getting the grades I needed to."
In ninth grade, however, she fell in love with biology and realized that studying medicine would suit her. "I'm happy now because I'm doing what I want to do, and it's also what my parents want me to do."
For her parents, Nguyen represents a chance to leave behind past disappointments. In 1993, her father, a former South Vietnamese military officer, and mother, a former police officer, moved with their five children from a farm near Hue to the United States. The parents took jobs at the Inner Harbor Marriott Hotel, he as a laundryman and she as a housekeeper.
Nguyen, the family's youngest child, is applying to the Johns Hopkins University and would be the first among her brothers and sisters to attend college. Her siblings were older when they arrived in the United States and had more difficulty learning English than she did. They began working after high school to help support the family.
"If [Tam] could become a doctor, that would greatly satisfy me and make me happy," Kham Nguyen said in Vietnamese, with his daughter serving as his interpreter.
Despite her parents' influence on her, Tam Nguyen said she has her own ideas about her future, including working as a doctor in impoverished countries. She also plans to continue doing medical research.
Said Nguyen: "We know so much about biology, but it's only a tiny part of what's out there."