Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

Tam Nguyen Tackles Diabetes in Vietnamese Americans Through Human-Centered Research

Vietnamese Americans experience high rates of diabetes. 

Tam Nguyen hopes to change that with her project, “Transforming the Paradigm of Diabetes Prevention Among Vietnamese Americans,” which aims to prevent diabetes in the Vietnamese American community by addressing their specific needs. 

“It comes from a place where Asian Americans in general—specifically Vietnamese Americans—have a uniquely different experience with care for their diabetes because there are linguistic, cultural, and anthropometric differences,” said Nguyen, associate professor at the Connell School of Nursing (CSON).

Nguyen said her plans for the research project earned her the University of California-Davis’ Betty Irene Moore Fellowship, a program dedicated to enabling new research and innovation among nursing scholars. The fellowship awarded Nguyen $450,000 to fund her project.

Nguyen said her interest in the project stemmed from the lived experiences of her own family.

“Being Vietnamese myself, I have a deeper appreciation that there’s so much group variability within buildings, community, and population,” Nguyen said. “My dad has diabetes, and I have been touched personally within my larger family with people who either had pre-diabetes or diabetes.”

Because the resources available for those with diabetes are not aligned with the Vietnamese diet or culture, Nguyen said her diabetic relatives had a particularly difficult experience preventing and treating their conditions. She said her motivation to pursue the project was from a desire to meet the specific needs of the Vietnamese American community.

“[I was] fascinated at the different needs that Asian populations have as it relates to diabetes prevention and management,” Nguyen said. 

While the project is still currently in its developmental stages, Nguyen said there are clear objectives in place guiding its progression. One of these objectives is to identify which characteristics of Vietnamese Americans might be leading to disproportionate percentages of diabetes among their populations.

“The first aim is looking at different psychosocial phenotypes of Vietnamese Americans, the second aim is adapting the intervention to match these different phenotypes or archetypes of Vietnamese Americans, and the third aim is to pilot this adaptive trial to see if it actually leads to better outcomes,” Nguyen said. 

According to Nguyen, the project combines expertise and resources from both CSON and the BC Graduate School of Social Work (SSW). She said conducting research at Boston College is also unique because of the University’s emphasis on addressing human needs. 

“One thing that I think is unique—and something that BC has a growing strength in—is we’re incorporating the use of human-centered design approaches … to design intervention to match these phenotypes,” Nguyen said. 

BC professors such as Sunand Bhattacharya, associate vice provost for design and innovation strategies at SSW, were called upon by Nguyen to bring the project to life through human-centered design. 

Bhattacharya said he contributes to the project by researching the experiences of targeted populations of Vietnamese and other Asian Americans to find an approach that best appeals to their needs.

“If we can create a blueprint, a playbook that works for one community, then we can use it for others,” Bhattacharya said.

Bhattacharya said one of the project’s goals is to turn this “playbook” into a website to serve as a resource for diabetic needs. Eventually, he hopes to expand the project by increasing the website’s accessibility through an app with the power to monitor glucose levels.

He said the research he is conducting has forced him to look beyond his own experiences and work to better understand the needs of others.

“What resonated with me is I myself am a type two diabetic, educated, and yet I am negligent,” Bhattacharya said. “I put myself in the person’s shoes who doesn’t have much knowledge. Empathy is a very important piece.”

In addition to the BC faculty members collaborating on the project, several BC undergraduate research fellows and doctoral students are also working with Nguyen. She said she hopes to bring together different backgrounds and majors to diversify the project’s objectives.

“When I first joined, it was more about gathering information and collecting it into an article and gaining content as to what the project will be doing,” said Brianna Im, CSON ’25. “Now we’re in the stages of actually executing it by gaining participants to do focus groups to [assess] their personal experiences.”

Like Nguyen, Im said her choice to join the team was related to her family’s own diabetic history. 

“I’ve lost family members due to complications from diabetes, so this is very personal to me because I get to learn how I can prevent diabetes in my own life,” Im said. “When I saw that Professor Nguyen was doing research specifically with the Asian American community … it really resonated with me, and I think that the subject is so close to her personal identity exemplified in this project.”

Nguyen said the project and its goals align with the values of CSON, SSW, and BC as a whole. By working with communities that might otherwise be overlooked, Nguyen said her research has the power to deliver meaningful solutions.

“I think one of the underlying missions of the [CSON] and even social justice is working with vulnerable populations and helping to address health disparities and health inequality,” Nguyen said. “This project is an opportunity to teach students and engage in projects that are making some inroads towards achieving health equity.”

December 7, 2023