With an Eye on Impact, a Decorated Husky Prepares for a Career in Community-Driven Medicine

By the time he was in high school, Thomas Khuu knew he wanted to be a doctor. Khuu is now a senior at the University of Washington (Biochemistry), where his commitment to the greater good has helped him earn special recognition: a spot on the 2019 Husky 100 list.

A group of students pose in purple Husky attire
Pictured here with fellow Camp Kesem volunteers, Thomas Khuu finds time to give back while finishing college and working in the Chao Lab

Since arriving at UW, Khuu has made a habit out of helping others. Working with Camp Kesem to support children whose parents are impacted by cancer and shadowing a retinal surgeon treating patients struggling with macular degeneration are just two of the experiences that have inspired him to pursue a life of service.

Khuu is also motivated by a strong sense of community. “As a person of Vietnamese descent, I’ve seen how immigrant families and refugees struggle to navigate the healthcare system,” he explains. “Often they won’t seek care until it’s too late. More preventative measures for issues like eye disease are really important.”

For Khuu, eye health is now a major focus. It began during his freshman year of college, when a desire to learn more about medicine – and a bit of chance – led him to Dr. Robert Nash, a retinal surgeon practicing at Proliance Retina, where he witnessed the human impact of vision loss. “A lot of people come into the clinic every couple of months to get intravitreal injections of VEGF, to help prevent angiogenesis,” he says, referring to the formation of new blood vessels that cause scarring of the retina, and can lead to permanent damage and even blindness. “That showed me there’s no great way to deal with the root cause. We can manage and prevent worsening of symptoms, but we can’t cure.”

Thomas Khuu stands in front of a scientific poster
Khuu at the 2018 Summer STEM research poster session hosted by the University of Washington

Several years ago, Khuu brought his interest in retinal pathology to the lab of Jennifer Chao, a faculty member in the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM), where he is part of an effort to use stem cells to model diseases similar to those he had seen in the clinic.

“I feel very lucky to be in the Chao Lab,” says Khuu, who has been working on a project in which he used immunofluorescence to study Sorsby’s fundus dystrophy, a degenerative eye disease.  “The cells that we’re using to model the disease come from the blood samples of patients who Dr. Chao sees in her practice,” explains Khuu. “To me, it’s rewarding to know that everything we’re doing in the lab has relevance to the clinical world.”

Not surprisingly, the work happening in the Chao lab is begnning to draw attention. A recent KCTS news story showcased the importance of Chao’s research to one of many families coping with Sorsby’s fundus dystrophy.

Thomas Khuu with a young child
Khuu helps a visitor pick a prize at the Vietnam Health Clinic table at Tết in Seattle

Hoping to expand the scope of his research, Khuu received an ISCRM Undergraduate Summer Fellowship, a program, supported by funding from the State of Washington, that allowed him to explore Bruch’s membrane remodeling for Sorsby’s fundus dystrophy and gave him perspective on the broader stem cell research happening across the institute.

Now, thanks in part to the high-profile Husky 100 list, the UW campus community is getting a glimpse at the impact Khuu is having in and out of the lab. According to Khuu, though, it was the website, not glory, that intrigued him. “I saw the photos a couple years ago and thought it would be awesome to be on UW’s front page.”

The clincher for Khuu was a surprise nomination from Dr. Kate Norako, an Assistant Professor in the UW Department of English, who taught Thomas in a 2017 survey of medieval and early modern literature. Through his exceptional work in that class, Norako saw in Khuu a keen ability to thoughtfully attend to the diverse stories of others and sensed that this skill would serve him well as a physician. “It was the commitment to pursuing a career as a doctor and to choosing courses that would allow him to compassionately care for his patients that motivated me to nominate him for the Husky 100 list and I was thrilled to learn that he made it,” says Dr. Norako.

As graduation approaches, Khuu remains firmly committed to improving the lives of people in under-resourced communities. He will be starting medical school this summer at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and hopes to seek out faculty mentors and research projects that will feed his interest in advancing medicine. Long term, his goal is to have a practice that serves immigrants and refugees.