Failure Drives Learning

Thuong Nguyen works with his mentor, Anthony Caruso, assistant vice chancellor of research and physics professor. Photos by Brandon Parigo, Strategic Marketing and Communications

Dynamic duo in physics creates a path to success

With a student-to-faculty ratio resembling a small private college, UMKC makes mentorship a central part of the student experience. Though more than 16,000 students are enrolled, the 14:1 student-to-faculty ratio is unusually small for such a large university.

The result: UMKC has many mentorship success stories.


Meet Anthony Caruso, assistant vice chancellor for research and physics professor, and Thuong Dang Nguyen, who is majoring in physics and electrical and computer engineering and on track to graduate in 2018. He’s also a Trustees’ Scholar, earning Trustees’ Scholar of the Year in 2017.


What makes faculty mentorship critical to the success of students?

Caruso: Faculty mentors are critical to student success because they have the foresight and experience to illustrate and execute an efficient and effective growth path.

Good mentors allow students to learn from risk and chance in a way that builds independence and confidence. A good mentor will also force the student to look at the problem being studied from all degrees of freedom – not just in their area of expertise. Such vantage points include the physical, metaphysical, policy or ethical points of view.


Anthony Caruso


What led you to UMKC?

Nguyen:  I came to UMKC before I was a UMKC student. During my sophomore year of high school at Southwest, I received a summer fellowship (2012) from the American Chemical Society to become a research assistant under Professor Nathan Oyler in the Department of Chemistry and Professor Anthony Caruso and Professor Michelle Paquette, both in the Department of Physics.

After the fellowship, I needed a job, and I knew that I didn’t want to do anything else besides science and engineering. So, I asked Tony and Michelle to stay with the research group to continue the research I started. That summer, I also got accepted to Penn Valley Community College to pursue my associate in computer science instead of continuing my junior and senior years of high school.

In 2014, after I graduated from high school and received my associate in computer science, I realized it was time to decide where I should spend my next four years of my life for another degree. I applied to a lot of colleges and got accepted to the University of California, Davis, my dream school. I had to do a lot of thinking.

I thought to myself that if I go to a different school, I might have to start all over again. One thing that resonated and influenced my decision was when Tony told me, “It is most important that you go to a school where the teachers care and the students you are surrounded by push you to be better.”


Thuong Nguyen


What’s your favorite part about being a mentor?

Caruso: It’s when the mentee and I have come full circle. It is only after failure, and success, and re-evaluation of one’s dreams, and asking the hard questions, that one begins to understand how much they don’t know – and how great it is to be in a position to know how to seek the answers.

The biggest changes I’ve observed in Thuong are his ability to foreshadow complex problems and begin to formulate mitigating strategies or to ask for help before putting himself or the project at risk. This is a distinct, mature and major change from five years ago, when he started with us as a high school student.

How has Professor Caruso challenged you?

Nguyen: Tony always pushes me to do things that are beyond my ability and limits. And I think he knows that I am willing to take on projects or assignments in which I have no clue where to start, let alone deliver. I think our common value is that failure is just a part of the process. Failure is growth and failure is learning.

Tony has allowed me to immerse myself into the world of science and technology. Seeing the impact of science and technology over the past decades, it’s inspired me to become a scientist and engineer as a step forward in making the world a better place.


Where is UMKC taking you?

Nguyen: Everywhere! Along with being a UMKC student, I am a UMKC Trustees’ Scholar. During my time at UMKC, I have had the opportunity to work with physicists, chemists and engineers from different backgrounds. This allowed me to contribute my work for science journals and present my research at conferences and to universities.

With the help of various mentors from the UMKC Board of Trustees, I was able to involve, and give back to, the community. David Oliver, counsel at Berkowitz Oliver, allows me to see that serving the community helps me become a better person. Also, when someone gives back to society, they benefit from it, and they enhance their sphere of influence and form new visions by interacting with different circumstances. I admire David’s energy; he always is creative about how to help our community and how to get students like me to get involved.

Terry Dunn, former CEO and president from J.E. Dunn, shows me what is it like to be a leader in the business world. As an entrepreneur, failure is not something that can be avoided; it’s important how one deals with failures. I should fail quick and cheap so I can move on with other opportunities, and not let failure hold me back. I admire Terry’s accomplishments.

Professor Michelle Paquette has been more than a mentor to me — she’s helped me grow as a person. In the Vietnamese culture, you show up early to a party to help out. So I did that at a gathering, and she politely told me that, if anything, you show up late to a party. She’s also helped me with my writing. She cares a lot about her students, and stays behind the scenes.

Tell us about your business.

Nguyen: In April 2017, two friends and I started a product development company called Lean Start Lab. Our mission is to help early-stage entrepreneurs and startups to build out their technology to quickly go to market. The company is doing extremely well, and because of this, I decided to leave my high-paying job at Honeywell to pursue my company full-time.

To me, all of the things I do at UMKC are just the preparation for the next chapter of my life. I don’t know what it’s going to be like, and that is my motivation to get up every day to find out.


How are you different now than when you first started at UMKC?

Nguyen: Looking back about five years ago, I would say “wow” to myself. I was a shy high school kid with a minimal purpose in life. I just want to live a good life, and now living a good life to me is about being able to contribute to society, help other people, having something meaningful to pursue. Back then, everything was more about myself rather than living for others. I think I am now more confident in myself and my abilities. I see life is about overcoming challenges so I can grow and be better.

I switched majors and fields quite a bit. I started as a math major; then I spent two years pursuing computer science and completed my associate in it. Now I am finishing up my B.S. in physics and electrical and computer engineering. I just follow my intuition. I try things that I both love and hate. I see my life as a science experiment; the more experimentation I do, the better I get. By experimenting, hopefully, one day, I will find the secret formula to success.


> Dynamic duo mentorship pairs

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