Friday, July 19, 2024

Minh-Thi Nguyen was determined to ski down after a bad fall. It was not that painful, she pleaded with the ski patrol, and she didn’t want to hold up the rest of the group.

She eventually relented and allowed herself to be taken by sled to a mountain hospital, where doctors found she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament.

Illustrative of her unbreakable spirit, within months she had completed a half-marathon, popping aspirin down the course, then hiked the Italian Dolomites to fulfill a trip she had long planned with her friends – all before getting her ACL reconstructed.

Nguyen, a dedicated physicist and third-year graduate student at MIT studying experimental physics, died June 21 in a road traffic accident while riding her bike to work in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was 24.

Nguyen, affectionately known to family as “Chip” and to friends as “Mint,” had a zest for life and adventure like no other, and she put others before herself – without fail.

Nguyen poured endless time into the relationships she valued, never turning away a friend in need and traveling the country to spend time at birthdays or gatherings or just to check in.

Her friendships had amusing consequences: Since everyone she touched wanted to stick around, all dinner parties she hosted invariably became too big for the Cambridge apartment she shared with her roommates.

Her broad worldview also instructed her approach to her craft. A brilliant theoretical physicist, Nguyen made an indelible mark on the field for bringing her ideas to life with clever and powerful experiments.

Nguyen was born Oct. 28, 1999, in Hanoi, Vietnam. She spent the first five years of her life between her parents in Amsterdam and her grandparents in Hanoi.

Later, she lived in Troy, New York, before moving to Orange County, California. She attended Patton Elementary School and Oak Middle School, playing Lucy in a production of “Peanuts.” A dog named Cooper joined their family on her eighth birthday.

At Los Alamitos High School, Nguyen founded Growing Up Stem, a science outreach program that places high school students in elementary schools to lead science experiments.

She had hobbies, too, playing tennis with the school team, performing wushu with broad swords, and playing the piano.

But Nguyen’s focus was science: sophomore year researching astrophysics at Caltech; junior year researching quantum optics in a Siemens Summer Research Fellowship at Stony Brook University; senior year researching plasma physics at Princeton University.

She ended her high school career as valedictorian of her graduating Class of 2017.

Nguyen graduated from Princeton in 2021 with a degree in physics. While studying at the university, she volunteered as an Outdoor Action leader, bringing each year’s freshman class on backpacking orientation trips.

When not at Cap & Gown, her eating club, she led Princeton’s Entrepreneurship Club, participated in a weeklong intensive with New York City’s most prominent entrepreneurs and engaged in an eclectic list of activities including playing varsity rugby, performing in “The Vagina Monologues” and modeling for Fashion Speaks.

Before graduate school, Nguyen worked for the quantum computing startup QuEra, where she solved the maximum independent set problem with a new quantum algorithm.

Once at MIT, Nguyen worked in quantum engineering in Paola Cappellaro’s experimental physics group. She also developed a quantum gyroscope based on nitrogen vacancy centers in diamond, a project she later presented at the 55th annual meeting of the APS Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics.

This year, she was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

She is survived by her younger sister, Julia Nguyen; her parents, Hoa Tran and Hieu Nguyen; her boyfriend, Nick Krasnow; and dog, Cooper. A private memorial service will be held in Boston.

In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to help her family with funeral costs and other expenses during this time.