Coming Full Circle: Dr. Hung Ton-That

Posted on: Monday, 12/17/2018

Dr. Hung Ton-That

“Research ignores borders; it brings people together and opens doors. These are the reasons why I love what I do,” said Dr. Hung Ton-That.

For Dr. Ton-That, receiving an offer from the UCLA School of Dentistry for a full-time appointment as a professor of oral biology with his own lab was surreal. The two-time Bruin alum received his bachelor of science in chemistry and his PhD in microbiology from UCLA. Having moved his family around three times in the last two decades, he now plans to call UCLA home for the foreseeable future. 

“I kind of grew up at UCLA,” said Dr. Ton-That. “To be back here doing what I love and working with leaders in the oral health field is an honor and a privilege. I’ve come full circle.”

Hung Ton-That immigrated from Vietnam to Boston with his sister when he was 24 years old as a refugee. After enduring a few weeks of a harsh Northeastern winter, the siblings moved to sunny California. He had planned to attend medical school after his undergraduate degree but was offered a job as a lab technician in Dr. Olaf Schneewind’s laboratory in UCLA’s Microbiology Department. 

“I didn’t know anything about microbiology except the little I read about in my chemistry classes,” said Hung Ton-That. “After those first few weeks in the lab, I didn’t look back. I couldn’t wait to get to the lab to discover something new.” He later selected the Schneewind lab for his pre-doctoral work to study staph bacteria and its ability to infect a living organism through determinants on its surface, obtaining his PhD degree in 2000.

In 2001, Dr. Ton-That left California and moved with Dr. Schneewind to the University of Chicago to complete his postdoctoral studies on a brand new project that would eventually become his life’s work—the study of bacteria. 

In 2004, Dr. Ton-That was offered a professorship position at the University of Connecticut Health Center teaching medical and graduate students. It was at UCONN where he delved deeper into his work and started to explore how the surface of bacteria helps it attach to host tissues. It was also at UCONN where he received his first R01 grant—a commonly used funding mechanism from the National Institutes of Health. To date, Dr. Ton-That has successfully renewed his R01 grant twice for a total of 14 years.

Dr. Ton-That’s work took him to the University of Texas McGovern Medical School, where he made a home for almost 10 years until UCLA came calling. He plans to continue his research on oral bacteria’s role in periodontitis and examining how dental plaque forms. He also plans to expand his research and develop therapies to prevent staph infections and explore how certain oral bacteria promote colorectal cancer and pre-term birth. Work in his lab is currently supported by three R01 grants.

“I’m excited to expand my research program into areas that I’ve never explored before, and I owe a lot of my success to Dr. Schneewind,” he said. “When you get to a certain point in your career, there’s a sense of freedom. I feel I’ve finally reached that point. UCLA is an exciting place—where the thrill of discovery abounds in every corner.”