Cluj-Napoca, Romania, November 2010
After graduating with her master’s of public health degree from Yale, Trang Thach moved to Romania to research drinking water with the aid of a Fulbright Grant. Her search for a career, along with her family history and temple work for ancestors from Vietnam, has helped strengthen her testimony of God’s love and mercy.
How did you join the Church?
My mom joined the Church when I was about five or six, after we’d been living in the U.S. for a couple of years after leaving Vietnam. It is basically because of her that I was involved with the Church. When I turned eight I was baptized because my mom was still active in the Church and we were still going. But after a couple of years she became inactive.
When we first joined the Church, my dad wasn’t in the United States. My mom got involved with the Church because she felt like it was a great organization. So when we first started coming to church we attended the Asian branch, and there was a young American couple who didn’t have children. During that time that the branch was trying to strengthen their Family Home Evening program so they assigned ward missionaries and couples in the branch who were stronger in the Church to newer members and families to help them get started. So, this young American couple was assigned to our family, and they would come over to our house every Monday. My mom would make them a big meal. We’d all sit around the floor and eat and afterwards would have a lesson and an activity. And this went on for years. And so our families just became really close.
My mom started to work a lot, and so they would come even during the week. But especially on weekends they would bring us—me and my brother that’s just older than me—to their house. And we’d spend the weekend with them so that we could go to church on Sundays. It was kind of from that interaction that I stayed involved in the Church when I was younger.
A lot of my family became inactive, with the exception of me and my brother just older than me. You know, I wasn’t really surrounded by the Church, aside from the weekends when I would go to my white parents’, as I call them, house and go to church with them.
You have expressed feeling a sense of uniqueness as a member of the Church because of your personal history. How did that difference manifest itself?
After I graduated from the University of Houston and moved to D. C. to work, I decided that I would live in a house with three other girls who were members of the Church. I was really extremely nervous because I wasn’t sure if I would be “Mormon” enough since I had no idea what it was going to be like living with other members of the Church. And to be honest I thought it would be weird, and I thought that they would be weird. I asked things like, “Are they going to expect me to pray with them every morning and read my scriptures with them?” Because I have enough trouble doing that by myself as it is. But, you know, fortunately, when I met these girls they were all very down-to-earth—very strong in the gospel and were totally not like that at all. That made me feel more comfortable.
You were committed to going to medical school, but that didn’t work out for you. How did you deal with living away from home and with disappointment as you tried to find your career path?
When I moved to D. C., I strongly wanted to pursue medical school, and when I took the MCAT for the third time and didn’t do well on it, I was completely devastated. Only the difference was this time, living away from home in D.C., I didn’t have my family as a support system near me as I had the first two times. And I didn’t have my friends who I felt really knew my story. When I was in Houston, all my friends were with me the entire way, and they’d known me ever since I started to pursue that career path. In D.C. I told a few people about it, but it felt like no one really knew how much I had struggled with a feeling of failure and with a feeling of being lost, of not knowing what I was supposed to do with my life at that point. It’s really through that experience that I feel like I found my own testimony.
I also discovered that while I did have a testimony, a lot of it leaned on my white parents and what I’d known because of them. I think for me it was really the first time that I discovered my own relationship with the Lord, which for me was a very important milestone because I didn’t have them to lean on as I would have at home. It was hard but I really feel that that was important because it really stretched me. There were just days when I felt so lost and so confused. And it was also actually the first time that I’d asked a friend of mine for a blessing of comfort. Up until then it was my brother or my white dad who had given me a blessing. It was through that I gained my own testimony of the priesthood, as well, and of the power of priesthood blessings. I would say that was where I was really converted.
How did you find your way from the medical school career path to the public health career path you are on now?
I’ve always had the “I want to save the world,” idealistic perspective, which is one of the things that made me want to go into medicine and become a physician. Then in college I worked with an organization called the Collegiate Cancer Council, which basically had a mission of going out into the community—particularly the under-represented communities—to educate them about cancer, about how to avoid the risk. And I realized that I really enjoyed doing that. I enjoyed educating people. I enjoyed the prevention aspect of education. I enjoyed getting out in the community and being involved and being an active part in teaching people about different cancers and how to avoid them. I discovered Masters of Public Health graduate programs, and that path complimented my save-the-world mentality. Since pursuing public health instead of medicine, I’ve actually found that it fits better with my personal goals because I can go into under-developed countries and be more involved in the communities than I would have been in a medical practice. I can see more immediate, tangible results of what I’ve done.
I will say that it was hard for me to allow myself to see other options outside of medicine because my pride wouldn’t allow me to see past medical school because I didn’t want to be thought of as a failure. But somehow, through the grace of God—and I really believe that it was only through Him—I stopped seeing myself as a failure. And once I stopped seeing it that way that I was able to see other paths and options.
You’ve now graduated from the Yale School of Public Health with your masters degree and are currently living in Cluj, Romania, on a Fulbright scholarship. Would you explain what work you are doing in Romania?
I went to Cluj, Romania, for the first time last year to study trihalomethanes in drinking water. Basically Romanians disinfect their water with chlorine. Chlorine oftentimes reacts with the organic matter that is already in the water to form different byproducts. And among them is this class of compounds called trihalomethanes. There are four major ones, but the main one that I am looking at is chloroform. Chloroform has actually been found to be linked to different bladder cancers. And a lot of these studies have been done in the U.S. because the technology and research is more advanced here, but it hasn’t ever been done in Romania.
I went over there last year to collect water samples, at both the water treatment plants and at different resident facilities where water from those treatment stations is distributed. And I took the samples and I measured how much chloroform, or these trihalomethanes, are in their drinking water. And what I’m here to do this year is figure out how much are these people actually being exposed. I want to do an epidemiological study to see what the correlation is between those waters and the risk of bladder cancer. My other interest is birth defects because at least with that I am certain of the exposure time; bladder cancer has a much longer latency period. It’s at least five to ten years. So that might be more difficult. So I might actually switch over to studying birth defects.
How do your idealism and your interest in public health interact with your understanding of the gospel?
Public health just feels so natural to me. And it feels natural to me because it’s something that I would do anyway. If I saw someone drinking something that looked funny or if they were doing something that didn’t seem good for them, I would want to help them. I would want to do anything and everything I could to make conditions better for them. And that’s how I often feel with the gospel as well. The feeling that I get with public health is similar to what I get from the gospel: When I see someone struggle with something like loss or when life doesn’t go the way they planned, I feel like I can make a difference to that person. For me, I’ve found so much comfort in the gospel and in knowing that the Lord knows me so much better than I know myself. It’s kind of a natural thing for me to want to do that for people as well and to share that story with people when I see them struggling also. I just want to share with them my experiences and what I know and how it was for me. And really all that does come down to my faith and my testimony and the relationship I have developed with the Lord. Public health is me bearing my testimony in a different way.
Your family is originally from Vietnam. Tell me about taking your grandmother’s name to the temple.
I really feel our branch presidency was inspired to give us the challenge to do family history work and to find a name for the branch temple trip in May of last year. For a long time I struggled doing my family history mostly because Vietnamese people don’t keep records. There are no birth certificates or anything so it’s just really hard to track that stuff down. I just felt like it was so daunting. I just thought, “How am I ever going to find information? I have to go off people’s memories.” People in Vietnam just don’t seem that interested in talking about family history anyway.
One day there was a Family Home Evening where I learned that for the Church’s new FamilySearch program you didn’t need that much information. All you needed was their name, either their birth or death year, and location. And when I heard that I thought, “I can do that. I can probably get that information from my mom or my dad.” Three of my four grandparents have passed away. So, I did call my mom and just asked her what she could remember. She didn’t know my grandmother’s birth date but she did remember the exact date of my grandmother’s death. It was at the eleventh hour that I got this information as we were preparing to go to the temple. My friend helped me figure out how to get the card printed ready for me to go, and I went to the temple.
That trip was actually particularly hard. I prayed to feel the spirit, but I have to be honest and say I didn’t feel that immediately when I came in. But, for some reason, when I got into the baptisimal font and was baptized for my grandmother, I just felt a complete, overwhelming feeling of the Spirit. I felt a peace come over me. I’d like to say that it felt like my grandmother was happy and excited that I was doing that work for her. She was the first relative that I had ever done. I was just completely overwhelmed with the Spirit. I was tearing up as they were reading the words of the prayer, and as I was in the font I just felt so thankful that my grandma could have that opportunity because I really didn’t know how she would have that chance otherwise. She never had the opportunity to hear the gospel in her life because our missionaries aren’t allowed into Vietnam yet. And that’s actually always been something really difficult for me to understand. And I also wonder about my family and how all of that is going to work. Just, how? I have so many questions with that. At the same time I believe in a God that’s merciful and knows the desires of my heart and will allow me to be with my family somehow. So, I just found peace in that and was really thankful for those ordinances that we can perform.
You have taken more of your family names to the temple since then.
I have been baptized for my paternal grandmother now. And then I’ve done both of my grandmothers’ endowments as well, which has been really awesome for me.
How has doing temple work for your family members changed your perspective of the gospel?
It has really helped to strengthen my testimony of the eternal nature of families. I think this is again mostly because right now it’s only me and my brother who’s older than me who are active in the Church. That’s hard for me, too, because I think sometimes I struggle with the fear that I won’t get to be with my family because of that. So I think that’s one of the things it’s taken me a long time to overcome, or to work through and reconcile for myself. I still don’t really know how God will take care of that or how it will all work out. But I think I’ve just found peace in knowing that it will somehow. That’s the whole purpose of the temple, to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers and the fathers to the children. I just know and have a testimony that He will somehow make that happen, whether it be in this life or the life to come. Although it’s hard for me to see that with my family here now, I think I have found comfort in knowing that I can be sealed with my family that has passed on through doing their work and giving them that opportunity. And so this just helps me to kind of see things from a less immediate and temporal perspective and more from an eternal one, which is again what I think the temple is all about anyway.
At A Glance
Location: Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Marital status: Single
Occupation: Student of life, public health professional
Schools Attended: University of Houston (BS in Biology), Yale School of Public Health (MPH)
Languages Spoken at Home: Vietnamese & English; now, a little Romanian 🙂
Favorite Hymn: “Because I Have Been Given Much”
Interview by Elizabeth Pinborough. Photos used with permission.