Jimmy Tangchittsumran grew up in New York City, where almost everyone in his family works in restaurants, including a sister who is a sommelier (wine expert) at a 3-star Michelin restaurant and another who is a chef. So his parents were surprised by his decision to enlist in the Air Force and to attend college. He is the first in his family to tackle both.
From STEM to Immunology
Not that Tangchittsumran’s parents had concerns with his decisions. They didn’t. His mom and dad were open to whatever made him happy. “My parents were either/or,” Tangchittsumran said. “I was expected to work or to go to college.” Before he decided on higher education, he spent six and a half years in the military, where he worked with computers.
That helped to ignite Tangchittsumran’s interest in STEM, although he didn’t know what exactly he wanted to study until he ended up doing research on disease. “There are a couple of people I know who are actually affected by certain autoimmune diseases, so I’m currently trying to investigate autoimmune disease immunology,” he said.
Worms, Amino Acids, and Research
At 26, Tangchittsumran had been out of high school from many years. He’d also been living a military life, which is quite different from civilian life. When he began college at Community College of Denver, his first task was to adjust to being a student—and, interestingly, it was worms that helped him get comfortable in an academic setting.
At CCD, Tangchittsumran worked as an undergraduate research assistant, helping Professor Mark Haefele, MS, and undergraduate students conduct research. “I worked with microscopic worms and certain types of fruit flies as model organisms,” Tangchittsumran said. “We investigated something called phenylketonuria (PKU), which is a human disease that results in the inability to process certain types of amino acids. It causes developmental disease in children, so we were trying to find links between that and certain things that are analogous in worms.” It wasn’t the worms so much as the lab setting that made Tangchittsumran feel at home in college.
By the time he transferred to CU Denver, Tangchittsumran was certain he wanted to continue doing research. “I chose CU Denver because of the unique opportunities and prime location,” he said. “The fact that I could go from CU Denver to CU Anschutz is amazing.”
TRIO & Gates Summer Internship Program
Currently a biochemistry major, Tangchittsumran plans to graduate in spring 2023, but he’s already working at CU Anschutz. “My first position [at CCD] helped get the ball rolling,” he said. “Then I became a TRIO McNair Scholar and that helped prepare me for a lot of great opportunities and pushed me to challenge myself as a researcher.” Last summer he participated in the the Gates Summer Internship Program (GSIP) and worked at the Gates Biomanufacturing Facility at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Currently, he is part of the Education Through Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (EURēCA!) Program, conducting research at the Gnotobiotic Core Service Center at CU Anschutz. “I work under Dr. Kristine Kuhn, who is an MD/PhD. She’s a phenomenal mentor.”
Tangchittsumran plans to continue studying immunology. He could either pursue medical school or attend graduate school (or both). However, since he started college after being in the military for almost seven years, he plans to focus on graduate school. “Personally, I’m a bit older and I’d like to finish school, start researching, and start a family,” he said. “So I feel a PhD in immunology is a better fit for me.”
Learning, Enthusiasm, Experience—and Waffles
Tangchittsumran, who is married to another CU Denver student, is getting practice for parenthood through Waffles, the couple’s Labrador retriever puppy. “When we do have children, we’ll be fully prepared,” he jokes. “Waffles is definitely a big baby. He gives us a lot of happiness.”
A self-proclaimed nerdy scientist and earnest optimist, Tangchittsumran explains how he gained academic confidence: “I was interested in learning and I showed enthusiasm. The enthusiasm led to opportunities and the opportunities led to experience and then the experience led to credibility.”
His advice to other first-generation students? Simple. “Don’t be discouraged by your age or your background.”