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Giving back to her community

Ph.D. student Theresa Duong seeks to raise awareness of HPV among Vietnamese-Americans

January 10, 2022
Giving back to her community
Theresa Duong is a “double anteater,” having returned to UCI for her Ph.D. in 2016 after earning her bachelor’s degree in public health in 2015. Program in Public Health

Huong “Theresa” Duong wants to have a conversation about sexual health.

For her dissertation, the Program in Public Health Ph.D. student is seeking to understand the methods of HPV vaccine communication among Vietnamese-American young adults. She hopes to understand how peers can influence each other to vaccinate for HPV in adulthood.

The HPV vaccine is a preventative measure for many cancers, including cervical, oropharyngeal, vaginal, penile and anal cancers. According to Duong, Vietnamese-American women have a very high rate of cervical cancer in comparison to other Asian-American subgroups, yet it is a subgroup that is lacking in data.

So when we’re seeing rates, we always look at the ‘Asian-American rate,’ which is not technically correct, because Asian-Americans are such a heterogeneous population,” Duong says. “We don’t all speak same language, we don’t all have the same cultural background, and so that’s why I’m really interested in studying specifically Vietnamese-Americans … because it’s a very unique group, just as every Asian-American group is unique.” 

Duong’s overall focus is to address health disparities among young adult Vietnamese-Americans. She calls herself a “double anteater,” having returned to UCI for her Ph.D. in 2016 after earning her bachelor’s degree in public health in 2015.

Duong is the daughter of two Vietnamese refugees. Her parents left their home country in 1975 and were sponsored in the U.S. by a government reunification program. While working odd jobs to support their families, her parents were both eventually able to attend college.

“My dad went to [Cal State] Long Beach, and he worked as an electrical engineer,” Duong says, “But he struggled a lot with language, since English was not his first language, and so it was really challenging for him. So it was really challenging for him to adjust to living in America.”

Duong’s father graduated college after 10 years of working and attending school part-time. Hearing her parents’ stories inspired Duong to go into academia. Her family experience also fuels her passion for her areas of research, which mainly focuses on cancer preventions and health behavior interventions. Her work focuses especially on the HPV vaccine and cervical cancer, which are often associated with sexual health, a stigmatizing topic of conversation in many Asian-American families.

“I am really interested in understanding how we can normalize stigmatized health topics,” Duong says. “And all of these interests come from my own experiences in my family. You know, we never had sexual health conversations with my family, but early sexual health conversations with adolescents actually lead them to make better health decisions for themselves.”

As an undergraduate, Duong enjoyed working with UCI faculty mentors on her Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project. As a graduate student, she has enjoyed being a teaching assistant for courses in her previous undergraduate program.

After graduating from her Ph.D. program in 2022, Duong plans to eventually become a professor. Working with UCI’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation has allowed her to gain a lot of pedagogical training and experience, and it has helped her solidify what she wants to do in the future.

She hopes to mentor other underrepresented, minority students through their own journey in higher education, as her faculty mentors have done for her.

“Over time, I’ve interacted with a lot of students and other young adults, and I learned that I really, really enjoy teaching,” says Duong, “I would still like to do some research, but I don’t think it would be my focus. I just feel like [teaching] is where I’m going to be, it’s where I want to go.”

If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The Program in Public Health plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting: https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/school-of-population-and-public-health.