Improving one-third of our days

Spurred by factory work with her mother, Google consultant Vy Tran, ’16, is dedicated to making workplaces safer and healthier.

Be a World of Good

In a steam-filled Seattle tofu factory, heavy machinery screeched overhead and hot cauldrons haphazardly slid along the floor. Vy Tran and her mother hunched over the assembly line — day after day, week after week.

As time passed, Tran, ’16, could only watch as her mother, like many of the factory’s employees, struggled with taxing mental and physical stress. But working in a factory was not a choice for the two of them.

Most people spend eight hours a day working. That’s 33 percent of their day! I can’t think of anything more meaningful than making sure that 33 percent of our precious lives are fulfilling, efficient and without pain.

— Vy Tran

In 2001, Tran and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. Shortly after they arrived, Tran’s father unexpectedly passed away, and her mother had to seek work to make ends meet. Soon, Tran had to join her. For almost two years, she spent hot, grueling evenings after school on the factory floor — but she excelled in her studies, motivated to someday make a difference for her mother and struggling workers like her.

After graduating from Seattle’s Franklin High School, Tran set off to study at the University of Washington. She knew she wanted to help others live healthier lives, but she didn’t yet know which path to take.

“What can I do to help?”

It didn’t take Tran long to start finding her way. During her freshman year, she jumped at the opportunity to return to her homeland, and spent two weeks in rural Vietnam as a volunteer with the Vietnam Health Clinic. From triaging patients and assessing vision and dental health to providing patients’ prescriptions, she helped deliver general medical care and resources to over 2,000 villagers of Can Tho, Vietnam.

Despite the many smiles and thanks Tran received for her work, she couldn’t help but ask herself tough questions about the patients she aided:

“Who is going to provide this same care when we’re gone? Where do these people’s misfortunes stem from? How can they be avoided? What can I do to help and create sustainability in this process?”

Revisiting the past

Back in Seattle, Tran decided to focus her efforts on improving poor work conditions. She changed her major to environmental health within the School of Public Health, and began preparing herself to make an impact as an occupational health worker.

She interned with the UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and Tesoro Corp., focusing her research on worker stress factors like safety procedures and industrial hygiene — the same factors she and her mom had suffered from in the factory. With her daily work ranging from measuring stress in surveyed workers to monitoring for hazardous chemical leaks, Tran never lost sight of whom she was helping with her research and work.

“I can’t forget the conditions that we were working in. Seeing how it’s impacted my mom’s physical and mental health, it’s been pretty overwhelming,” she says. “I never wanted to see that again.”

Happy, healthy work

After graduating from the UW in June, Tran embraced another opportunity in the name of creating a healthier workplace: She took a position as an environmental health and safety consultant in Google X’s Research Safety Team, where she supports projects such as Google’s Driverless Cars and Google Glass. In the future, Tran hopes to study occupational hygiene in graduate school as she continues to work and provide financial support to her family.

The Seattle tofu factory has since been shut down because of its many safety violations, but the health problems that Tran’s mother developed are lasting. While memories of her past may never disappear, Tran is glad she can apply her ever-growing skillset to improve occupational health.

“Most people spend eight hours a day working,” says Tran. “That’s 33 percent of their day! I can’t think of anything more meaningful than making sure that 33 percent of our precious lives are fulfilling, efficient and without pain.”