Vanna Hovanky, Finalist 2012 & 2013

Pursues Career in Cancer Research and Community Health

Vanna Hovanky
“I realized that I can learn from mistakes and grow from them to become a better researcher. It’s taught me a lot about perseverance and developing confidence in myself.”

This is the third of three articles following the extraordinary careers of former winners of the Austin Regional Science Festival.

When Vanna Hovanky decided to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), she knew she wanted to help people.

“Since my freshman year I’ve always been tied into STEM,” said Vanna. “I’m interested in the research aspect, and I also have the goal to have some kind of positive impact. And when I went to choose what career path I wanted to go into, I wanted to do something where I could ask interesting questions, and also be able to use my creativity and scientific background to help.”

Vanna’s 2013 Best of Fair winning project at the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival did just that. Vanna, as a junior at Austin Independent School District’s Bowie High School, developed a way to transform harmless bacteria (normally found in the colon) into a colon cancer-fighting mechanism. The bacteria basically converts a nontoxic drug into a cancer-fighting drug within the colon itself.

With this project, Vanna advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and then went on to study Human Biology at Stanford. Now, she is completing a Master’s degree in Community Health and Prevention Research through the Stanford School of Medicine. She has also been accepted into a dentistry program, where she wants to focus on oral cancer and develop her technical skills through learning new procedures.

During her career thus far, Vanna has worked in several research labs and has published her research in several journals. Since 2016, Vanna has volunteered at the Stanford Pacific Free Clinic as a lab assistant, as a Vietnamese interpreter for Vietnamese speaking patients and as a care-facilitator, where she acts as a patient advocate and helps guide patients through their visit.  

Vanna said her experience working on her projects for the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival helped her become a better researcher. Austin Energy, the City of Austin’s publicly owned electric utility, hosts and sponsors Science Fest every year in February for nearly 3,000 students from 3rd - 12th grade.

“Before, when I went into the lab, I was really scared and nervous like: ‘I’m going to bump into the Bunsen burner’ and ‘What if I don’t do this reaction correctly?’” said Vanna. “I realized that I can learn from mistakes and grow from them to become a better researcher. It’s taught me a lot about perseverance and developing confidence in myself.”

Vanna also said she was grateful for the support she received from her family. Her dad, Merritt Funk, has judged at Science Fest since 2011, and has helped select Best of Fair winners in previous years (with the exception of the years Vanna was competing).

Merritt works in research and development related to plasma etch process equipment for Tokyo Electron, one of the sponsors for Science Fest. He said being a parent who was also a judge did not give Vanna any real benefit, as one might think, but he enjoyed his role in supporting her research.

“Vanna is smart and can do both — keep her grades up and do research,” Merritt said. “Once she found a topic that she was excited about and a good mentor (Dr. Josh Beckham at UT), my role was more driving her to the UT lab nearly every day and staying late at night. I would work at Starbucks till she was done – several hours, many times a week. Growing cells and testing requires almost daily attention. Vanna was on her mission and I enjoyed being someone that she could talk to.”  

As a judge, Merritt said two important factors are to be a motivator for the student and also to be fair.

“At the end of the day, some of these students are really brilliant and it’s my hope that we can be encouraging for them to keep stretching what they think is possible for themselves,” Merritt said. “They may be our doctor someday!”

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Date last reviewed or modified: 2/4/19

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