Vy Dong’s mother and father were pen pals living in Vietnam around the end of the Vietnam War. Dong’s father had joined South Vietnam’s navy, but the two reunited by chance at a refugee camp in Guam. Her parents married and immigrated to Texas, where Dong was born. They worked odd jobs while their children were young. “They didn’t really have a chance to go to college,” Dong says. Dong’s father eventually became a machinist, and her mother became a manicurist. When Dong was in first grade, her family moved to Southern California.
Dong earned a merit-based scholarship from the University of California, Irvine, where she initially pursued an ecology major. She was attracted to the idea of teaching from a young age. But she fell in love with chemistry after taking an organic chemistry course with Larry E. Overman. “I really liked how everything was very conceptual, but yet I knew that the concepts had real-life applications,” Dong recalls. She worked in Overman’s group for 2 years before starting grad school at the University of California, Berkeley. “It was really exciting to go to Berkeley at the time,” Dong says. “I loved the atmosphere there.” She then moved with her adviser, David MacMillan, to the California Institute of Technology, where she finished her PhD. Dong has always felt at home in California. “There’s something about California, and it kind of permeates through the chemistry departments as well,” she says. She later returned to UC Berkeley for a postdoc.
“After living in California and really being determined not to be cold, I ended up accepting a job at the University of Toronto,” Dong says. She taught in Toronto for 6 years. “I think I came to a greater appreciation for what it means to be American” from living abroad. She especially loved the teaching and mentoring part of being a professor. “There were a lot of doubts in my mind along the way, but it was something I’ve always wanted to do, and I just kept going forward,” Dong says. Then an opportunity arose to return to her alma mater, UC Irvine. “The thought of moving my whole team was really difficult for me because I didn’t want to disrupt their lives,” she says. But her group was supportive, so in 2012 she returned to California.
Dong’s lab at UC Irvine studies catalysis, developing small-molecule versions of enzymes found in nature. Her group—which includes her husband, lab manager Wilmer Alkhas—has collaborated with colleagues in the petroleum, pharmaceutical, and fragrance industries, and they have worked on treatments for orphan diseases. This April, Dong received the 2019 American Chemical Society Elias J. Corey Award for Outstanding Original Contribution in Organic Synthesis by a Young Investigator. “I’m most proud of my grad students,” she says. “Being able to help them get their PhDs and get to their dream postdocs or dream jobs: that’s what I’m most excited about at the end of the day.”