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From lab cleaner to published biotechnologist: the story of a Vietnamese female scientist

Thursday, April 20, 2017, 11:57 GMT+7

Still in her thirties, Truong Hai Nhung has already earned a PhD in human and animal physiology, authored works for 34 international and national publications and seminar reports, though her road to success was not always a bed of roses.

Last year, Nhung was honored with Vietnam’s Golden Globe Award, an annual award presented to ten young Vietnamese under 35 in recognition of their exceptional contributions in science and technology.

Now vice-dean of the Faculty of Biology and Biotechnology at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Science and deputy head of the university’s laboratory for stem cell research and application, Nhung says her passion for the field developed during her time spent working in the lab as a sophomore.

After two failed attempts at applying to medical school, Nhung chose to trade medicine for biotechnology, a decision which proved to be truly life-changing.

The knowledge-thirsty girl quickly found footing in her new dream, consistently ranking at the top of her class and often being recognized for her outstanding academic performance.

In her second year, Nhung and a friend wrote a heartfelt letter asking to work at the university’s laboratory.

“It was a bold move, but I was so thrilled by the prospect that I couldn’t refrain myself,” Nhung recalled.

Phan Kim Ngoc, the lab’s head, said she first viewed Nhung’s application with reluctance, assuming the young sophomore girl was too weak for the physically demanding job.

“I intended to talk her out of it by telling her that the job involved a lot of hard work and would require her attention day and night,” Ngoc said.

But Nhung’s determination finally won Ngoc over and she was permitted to work in the laboratory cleaning test tubes.

Despite being assigned a relatively unimportant task, Nhung says her time spent observing the different experiments being conducted in the lab was eye-opening and inspiring.

After graduating with honors, Nhung was offered a teaching and research job at the university, as well as the opportunity to enroll in its human and animal physiology master’s and doctoral degree programs.

“I sometimes envy my friends with high-paying jobs,” Nhung admitted. “But I’ve never regretted pursuing a research career. Working in the lab alongside dedicated colleagues brings me a kind of joy that can’t be found elsewhere.”

Nhung spent two years between 2014 and 2016 working on a state-sponsored study on the isolation and utilization of immune cells to treat breast cancer, a new method that will soon undergo clinical trials and eventually be used in real-life treatment in Vietnam.

The 32-year-old biotechnologist is now working on another major project involving the use of stem cell technology to treat cirrhosis.

“Cirrhosis is a highly fatal disease and scientists have yet to identify a truly effective treatment,” Nhung said. Our study so far has demonstrated that stem cells are safe and effective in treating cirrhosis in animals. We expect to use the treatment in human trials soon.”

Having been married for seven years and a mother to a five-year-old son, Nhung says the most difficult part of being both a scientist and mother is finding the balance between work and family.

“I always have an internal struggle over whether I’ve fulfilled my duties as a researcher, professor, and mother,” Nhung admitted. “I’ve learned to divide my time evenly among the three, but it’s never truly enough.”

Comparing her current self to ten years ago, Nhung admits that she is often worried and stressed by pressure from work and family.

“Sometimes I think to myself that having a family is stressful, but it helps to see it as a responsibility rather than a burden,” Nhung said. “I chose a path for myself. Whether that path is easy or difficult is my choice to make.”

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