Finding Herself, Thousands of Miles from Home
From the classroom to the lab to a global health internship, Dante’ James has excelled while exploring what it means to be mixed race
By Anna Glavash Miller • Photo illustration by David Gill • January 17, 2024
6 min read
The anxiety-filled questions were familiar to junior Dante’ James as she led a tour last fall of the University of Oregon laboratory where she studies bacteria and fungi on the skin.
“What if I’m not enough to apply for this lab?” a student in the all-female group asked.
“I’ve also been in their shoes,” says James, a Vietnamese American and multidisciplinary science major in the Clark Honors College. “It can be really intimidating to get into STEM, or research, or try anything new.”
James reminded the group that, like research itself, finding belonging in the lab is a learning process. But regardless of the stumbles—a chemical spill, a rough grade on a test, a question of belonging—James has learned to believe in herself.
“I explained to them that when I joined the lab I had no clue what I was doing,” James says. “With my mentors here, I’ve learned to be independent, and it’s been great, but there’s been embarrassing moments where I’ve spilled chemicals all over myself.”
When confronted with life’s ups and downs, James remembers her motto: “I’m not giving up on myself. Everything’s gonna be OK.”
“How does it feel to start a pandemic?”
The daughter of a Vietnamese mother and an American father, James grew up in Myrtle Creek, a community in rural Douglas County, the middle child of three.
As a person of color in a predominantly White community, James was often the only Asian American in the room. At times, she says, the expectation to represent all Asians was “a lot.”
“I remember being so disgusted with how Asian people, including myself, were treated during COVID-19,” James says. She remembers being asked by a longtime friend how it felt to “start a pandemic.”
James yearned to be part of a community in which she felt belonging.
Drawn to biology in high school, James enrolled at the UO to pursue undergraduate research in the Clark Honors College. She was awarded a Stamps Scholarship, which covers all expenses and offers additional academic enrichment. In her head, she was already spending the money: study abroad in Vietnam.
In her first term at UO, James was introduced to the field of global health through Malaria: Science, Ethics, History, Technology, an honors college 101 course. The mosquito-borne disease is prevalent in tropical areas, including Vietnam.
Another class, Students of Color Opportunities in Research Engagement or SCORE, helped James claim her space in research, literally. The year-long class introduces underrepresented students to lab research and data analysis and helped her find a position in the lab of Matt Barber, an associate professor in the Institute of Ecology and Evolution, in 2022.
Now, James is sending research papers to her mentor Caitlin Kowalski, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab, and suggesting the findings could be connected to what they are seeing in the lab regarding skin bacteria and fungi. She’s also proposing new experiments.
James is never one to shy away from new experiences. “I try to channel her myself,” says Kowalski, who calls James’s confident attitude “the Dante’ approach.” It goes like this: “I can do this. If something comes up, I’ll figure it out.”
Recently, James stepped up to give a lab tour after hours, when no one else was available.
“I thought, ‘this is amazing,’” Kowalski says. “I’m so proud that she feels she is a member of this lab, this community, that she can show people around it. That’s ownership, and that’s something I admire at that age and in that position.”
On the front line against hand, foot, and mouth disease
During the summer of 2023, UO’s GlobalWorks program connected James with an internship at Horus, a research contractor in Vietnam that conducts pharmaceutical studies. James worked on a clinical trial studying the efficacy of a vaccine for hand, foot, and mouth disease, and its effects on immunity.
The disease, one of the top contributors to morbidity in the country according to the World Health Organization, causes mouth sores and rashes, spreads through close personal contact, and primarily affects children. James studied disease protocols and visited a facility of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and rural clinics that treat the disease, where she met doctors and researchers.
“I took a lot away from the research,” James says, because it occupied the middle ground between her lab work and coursework. “It’s like, ‘OK, you’ve developed a drug, but you’re not going to disperse it widely yet—you're testing it.’”
Uyen Hong, CEO of Horus, guided James on a dawn-to-dusk field trip around Vietnam’s provinces. Between stops on their itinerary, they joked in the van and ate rambutan from roadside vendors. She and James discussed everything from provincial culture and customs to a professional path James could follow to work her way, step by step, to the top of the healthcare industry.
“As a woman,” James says, “she was very conscientious that it’s difficult to get into the healthcare industry sometimes.”
As a member of the Diverse Ducks program, in which students create content to share with the UO community that reflects how they experience intersectionality abroad, James wrote blog posts at the beginning, middle, and end of her experience in Vietnam.
She had hoped to blend in more. But being there showed her that even after experiencing racism in America, she could simultaneously be judged “not Asian enough.” She still stuck out as an American.
She also experienced racism from her fellow American interns. Because she speaks some Vietnamese, she was expected to make arrangements for them. She says they showed their bias through cultural prejudices, White saviorism, and a privileged ignorance of realities in the country where they were guests. For James, the experience was infuriating.
Though confusing and sometimes disappointing, James’s time in Vietnam helped her find her position at the intersection of race, culture, and experiences, she writes in the blog.
“In terms of my identity, I learned that I can belong to both cultures, American and Vietnamese, although perhaps not one entirely,” James writes. “As a mixed-race individual, that is just something I have to accept and understand.”
James has never been one to sweep issues under the rug. From a young age, she has made stepping forward a way of life. In high school, she trained as a firefighting cadet, served as a youth representative on a state behavioral health board, and competed in public speaking as part of Future Farmers of America.
“In terms of my identity, I learned that I can belong to both cultures, American and Vietnamese, although perhaps not one entirely.”
At UO, she joined student government as the first-year representative. In the Barber lab, she proposed a glove recycling program that will become part of a new campus-wide sustainable labs initiative. Last fall, she helped organize a basketball fundraiser to benefit three organizations that support wildfire resilience across the state.
She’s also thankful for the mentorship of others along the way, like faculty members Nadia Singh from SCORE and Melissa Graboyes in the honors college. “Being able to work with Dante’ makes me very hopeful about the future of the field of global health,” says Graboyes, who taught the first-year course on malaria and leads the Global Health Research Group, of which James is a member.
Now, James looks for chances to give back to the communities that have nurtured her—like giving lab tours to young female students. “If you’re going to take space,” she says, “you’ve gotta make space.”
Want to celebrate a Mighty Woman of the University of Oregon? Send us your submission before Women’s History Month in March.
Anna Glavash Miller, MS ’18 (journalism), is a communications generalist in the Clark Honors College.