Debby Nguyen: Combining Literature and Medicine

Debby Nguyen is currently a Pharmacy and Data Science student at Northeastern University who is about to publish her first book, “Pills, Teas, and Songs: Stories of Medicine Around the World” in 2021 with Georgetown. Her poetry was also featured by the NY Times, and through balancing the worlds of literature and STEM, she embraces her Vietnamese heritage in such a truly inspiring way. Read on to take a glimpse into Debby’s creative process and views on Asian empowerment.

Instagram: @debby_nguyen


To start off, what was your childhood like? Any memories you’d like to share that may or may not have impacted you?

I grew up in Vietnam, in Hanoi and Saigon. My parents had me 2 years after graduating from college, so they were busy working a lot of the time. As a result, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ houses and enjoyed weekend trips to the countryside where my paternal grandparents live. When my grandpa was alive, he was a traditional Vietnamese medicine doctor and had lots of patients, even until he passed away. On the second floor of their 3-story house was a medicine room where he stored and prepared all of his medicines- powders, and pills of colors and shapes I only vaguely remember today. I spent hours there with my cousins, and we all sat on the bamboo mat on the floor, packaging his medicines into little bags pre-labeled with dosage information. The bamboo baskets used to store these bags of medicine stacked to the ceiling. After my grandpa passed, his practice closed down. My parents opened their own independent pharmacy during that period and kept it running for a few years before we moved cities. So for my entire childhood, I was surrounded by medicine- both Vietnamese and Western. Today, I’m studying Pharmacy at Northeastern University in Boston, and everyday, I’m amazed by how vast and diverse medicine is. That’s why I started writing at the beginning of this year and how “Pills, Teas, and Songs” was born.

What pushed you to major in Pharmacy and Data Science?

I was really torn between doing pre-med at UC Berkeley but ultimately chose to do Pharmacy at Northeastern in Boston. I like the versatility of a Pharmacy degree, and as of now, I’m really interested in digital health or healthcare consulting. I didn’t have any experience in coding before college and took computer science classes out of curiosity. To be honest, they were hard! However, I loved the challenge and just ended up taking enough classes to get a Data Science minor. Pharmacy and Data Science are rarely combined, but I think having tech knowledge would be valuable for pharmacists, especially as everything is becoming digital.

Regarding your book, “Pills, Teas, and Songs: Stories of Medicine Around the World” when did it first occur to you that writing a book on such a topic was something you wanted to do?

This book started with a research paper I wrote for my Modern Art History elective on Traditional Chinese Medicine packaging design. I didn’t expect to write a book, but I just felt so moved by how diverse and beautiful medicine is in different cultures. Reading about Chinese medicine, I immediately thought about my childhood and my family’s history with medicine; I realized I never properly researched traditional Vietnamese medicine even though it’s part of my identity. The more I read, the more I wanted to know more about the cultures and people behind unique medicine traditions around the world beyond my Asian heritage- and now we’re here!

Can you briefly explain the significance between medicinal practices and your Vietnamese heritage?

Living in Boston and studying Pharmacy, I’ve had a singular idea of what medicine looks like, and as a future pharmacist, I will work with Western medicine. After my grandpa passed, I lost my interest in learning more about Vietnamese medicine, and even though my dad often talks about it, I never dug deeper. However, being in college away from home, I miss hearing him talk about his childhood gathering herbs for my grandpa to make into medicine. I think it’s important to learn my culture’s history, to honor the thousands of years of history that have culminated into uniquely Vietnamese medicine practices.

Would you mind sharing one of your featured poems? What is the meaning behind it?

This is the link to my poem on the NY Times that I wrote in high school in 2018:

Women’s Voices

During a spring as cold as this one, it is easy to miss
Women’s voices.

The very sound of their voices, it was believed, could sink the state
Its pitch and prattle — dangerous —
proof of their wickedness.

Women’s voices
Hide under a quarter with room to spare,
Their tongues torn out, turned into trees or animals,
Most people never notice them.

But women’s voices, during a spring as cold as this one
Thrive below the blades,
Blooms in the poorest of soils,
Women’s voices —
Wastes no time flowering.

Although it’s not directly related to medicine, I’ve always felt like women did not have a voice in mainstream society. Women are often viewed as emotional or hysterical and not taken seriously in male-dominated careers such as finance, politics, or tech. However, my poem offers an optimistic view that women have and will always rise above barriers to change the status quo.

What are your thoughts on Asian representation within the STEM field?

I think while many Asian people pursue careers in STEM fields, we cannot group all Asians under one umbrella. As a Southeast Asian woman, my experience will be vastly different from that of an East Asian man. There are massive wealth gaps between different groups of Asian people, and it’s also important to consider intersectionality instead of checking boxes. Asian women are still underrepresented in tech, and with my interest in digital health, this is something I think about. However, I’m so inspired by the Asian female mentors I have in different STEM fields, and without these role models, I would have a much harder time envisioning myself in a STEM career. Furthermore, the bamboo ceiling is very real- there need to be more Asian people in management and C-suite roles. The idea that Asians, and specifically Asian women, are quiet and subservient needs to be dispelled.

Can you elaborate on how literature and other forms of art can be a legitimate outlet for Asian voices and creatives?

Literature and art by Asians for Asians is so important. Growing up, I read a lot of books by authors who are white men of European descent and, for example, could never fully relate no matter how much I loved Catcher in the Rye. Reading books and poetry by Han Kang, Yuko Tsushima, Kimberly Nguyen, Ocean Vuong, and Viet Thanh Nguyen has shaped my view of the world as well as my role in it as a Vietnamese woman. Asian voices and creatives are so important, especially because of the very real pressure in Asian society to not pursue creative careers. I wish growing up, I had more exposure to outlets for Asian voices and creatives in my education, and this is something that school curriculums need to consider changing.

With an already successful and inspiring career path, what do you plan to do in the future?

Thank you! However, I’m 19 and still very young. I’m still exploring different career paths; however, I love healthcare and my goal, no matter what I pursue, is to bring good to the world. Whether it’s through pharmacy, tech, or writing, I hope my work makes a difference.

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