Open Mic for Vietnamese Physicists
While attending a particle physics conference in Vietnam (see Postcard: Physics in Vietnam), I spoke to a number of physicists from a variety of backgrounds and at different points in their careers. Some of them are directors of major physics institutions, some are renowned experts in their field, and others are Ph.D. students planning for their future. Many have studied or worked abroad, and some are currently at foreign institutions. They all spoke about their experiences in Vietnam and what sets this country apart from others.
The interviewed physicists are Lê Đức Ninh, particle physicist at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Education (IFIRSE) in Quy Nhon; Nguyễn Văn Hiệu, former director of the Institute of Physics (IOP) and leading figure in the scientific development of Vietnam; Nguyễn Hồng Quang, IOP senior researcher and general secretary of the Vietnam Physical Society; Ngạc An Bang, dean of the physics faculty at Vietnam National University (VNU) in Hanoi; Mai Hồng Hạnh, lecturer at VNU in Hanoi; Vi Hồ Phong, Ph.D. student at VNU and International Program Associate at RIKEN Institute in Japan; Phan Mạnh Hưởng, professor of physics at the University of South Florida; Nguyễn Hồng Nhung, Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.
What are some of the historical or cultural aspects that shape physics in Vietnam?
“The connection to the former Soviet Union runs deep,” says Lê Đức Ninh. “I got interested in physics by reading popular science books from Russia that had been translated into Vietnamese.” Many senior researchers, such as Nguyễn Văn Hiệu and Nguyễn Hồng Quang, did part of their studies in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. This contrasts with the younger generation, such as Ngạc An Bang and Mai Hong Hanh, who have all studied in Europe, Japan, Korea, or the U.S.
“The perspective that the Vietnamese have towards education and science has been influenced by the Temple of Literature,” says Nguyễn Hồng Quang. The Temple, built in Hanoi in the 11th century, hosts a Confucius-based school, which is considered to be the first national university in Vietnam. “The goal of the school was to prepare students to be mandarins, which were officials of the kingdom,” he says. The Temple has come to signify that hard work and study can improve your situation, no matter what family you come from. Vi Hồ Phong concurs: “There are a lot of examples in our country of poor people who rose up because they did well in school.”
“We physicists all drive to work on scooters,” says Ngạc An Bang. “But being that I’m head of the faculty, mine is bigger than what the rest of the department drives,” he jokes. Motorized scooters are the dominant form of transportation in Vietnamese cities. Many foreign visitors are amazed at how scooter drivers are able to weave through dense traffic without crashing. Nguyễn Hồng Quang says that some scientists have even tried to model the scooter driving as a form of collective behavior, like schooling of fish.
What are the strengths of the physics environment in Vietnam?
“One of the main strengths of Vietnamese physicists is the love that they have towards the beauty of physics—theoretical physics in particular” says Nguyễn Văn Hiệu. He believes the physics community has benefited from strong international collaborations and dedicated support from the government. “The Vietnamese government has concentrated financial investment on a few research directions that can significantly contribute to the industrial development of the country, in particular on solid-state physics, optics, and spectroscopy.”
The universities in Vietnam have enthusiastic professors and provide a friendly learning environment, says Phan Mạnh Hưởng, who received his undergraduate degree from VNU before becoming a magnetic materials specialist in the U.S. “The knowledge and skills that I acquired in Vietnam not only prepared me for my advanced studies but also promoted me to become one of the leading experts in my research field.”
What are the challenges for Vietnamese physicists?
“The main challenge for the development of physics in Vietnam is the high price of equipment for research in physics,” says Nguyễn Văn Hiệu.
“In Vietnam, the salaries are not very high for professors,” notes Lê Đức Ninh. He says that a lot of young people are more interested in going into informatics and other more industry-friendly types of research. “You still have to live. You have to decide how much you want to compromise for science.”
“I studied nanotechnology and nonlinear optics at Kassel University in Germany, and in KU Leuven in Belgium, but when I came back to Vietnam, it was almost impossible for me to continue my graduate-school research,” says Mai Hồng Hạnh. The faculty at her university is strong in materials science, so she has adapted her experimentalist’s skills for a more material-based focus. “We have to compromise and utilize the resources that are available. We also have to think about what is good for our country’s development. Materials science has important connections to industry, automation, and biology.”
Why did you move abroad to study or work?
“I wanted to do research in experimental physics and realized that Vietnam did not have a lot of funding or a good reputation for physics research,” says Nguyễn Hồng Nhung. “Many senior people I talked to advised me to go abroad for better education and research opportunities. A reputable foreign university provides more research experience with cutting-edge research and technologies than in Vietnam.”
“While doing research in Vietnam, I found a lack of specialized facilities and equipment, as well as limitations in exchanging scientific information and collaboration between Vietnamese and prominent international research groups,” explains Phan Mạnh Hưởng. “I sincerely believed that if I had an opportunity to study abroad and to work in advanced research institutes, I would learn to become an internationally recognized physicist who could help bridge Vietnam to other countries through student exchange programs and collaborative research projects.”
What does the future look like for physics in Vietnam?
“We hope things will change for the better,” says Vi Hồ Phong. He and his fellow grad students see optimistic signs in the technology boom that is occurring in Vietnam. The country is home to many start-up companies, and industrial centers are being built outside of Hanoi and other cities. “If the economy takes off, maybe there will be more focus on basic science,” says Vi Hồ Phong.
“The most beneficial physics research for Vietnam is applied research, such as condensed-matter physics or biophysics,” says Nguyễn Hồng Nhung. “But I see growing communities of Vietnamese physicists abroad doing top-notch research across many fields. I believe in 50 years they will become the core of a strong physics research society in Vietnam.”
“As an overseas physicist collaborating closely with Vietnamese physicists, I feel very happy to see the rapid expansion of the Vietnamese physics community, both in size and in quality, over the last decade,” says Phan Mạnh Hưởng. He believes the close working relationships between at-home and abroad researchers “have been very impactful to the growth and reputation of the Vietnamese physics community.”
Michael Schirber is a Corresponding Editor for Physics based in Lyon, France.