A woman raised in a dirt-poor family of six and another who repaired bicycles as a child have attained high academic positions in universities and were awarded the Kovalevskaya Prize for roles in science. Ha Nguyen reportsA woman born into a single-parent family of six living in abject poverty in the mountains has shown that intellectual achievement is possible for everyone, given motivation and scholarship assistance.
She is Viet Nam’s youngest female maths Associate Professor Le Thi Thanh Nhan who, along with Associate Professor Vu Thi Thu Ha, was awarded the 2011 Kovalevskaya Prize for her outstanding contribution to science.
Nhan, deputy principal of the Science College at Thai Nguyen University, was born in 1970 in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue, but later their family moved to live in the mountainous province of Thai Nguyen.
Nhan’s father was an army man in the southern front during the American War and though he survived the battle he died when Nhan was a young girl. Her mother, a teacher, had to work hard to raise five children alone. Nhan, the third child, suffered exceptional hardship during her childhood and often went without food so her younger brothers and sisters could eat.
“At the time I had a dream to become a maths teacher to help my family and community escape from hunger,” Nhan said.
Despite such privation, Nhan was accepted into Viet Bac (now Thai Nguyen) University’s Mathematics Department and after four years of topping her year was invited to become a lecturer at the university.
Nhan’s passion for maths inspired her to continue with a Master’s degree and PhD.
“I become obsessed with maths because it is so exact, the digits attract me so much.” Dr Nguyen Tu Cuong, who was the professor advising Nhan in her PhD thesis, said at first he was worried how such a thin girl from the mountains could defend her PhD thesis.
“But when I saw her determination and passion I agreed to help her,” Cuong said.
Despite further hardship, such as giving birth to her first child and having to tutor other students as a way to earn money to invest in her research, Nhan completed her PhD thesis and became one of youngest associate professors in Viet Nam in 2005.
Apart from teaching, Nhan spends a lot of time in scientific research. As a result, she is the owner of nearly 20 research projects in algebraic maths, many of which have been published in magazines, such as the US Math Association, and in Europe the Science Citation Index and the Science Citation Index Expanded. She also had five pieces of work published in the Algebra Journal and London Maths.
Several maths institutes in France and the US have invited Nhan to join their research. In 2010 Nhan was among a few female scientists to be invited to attend an international conference on comulative algebra in Japan.
“My reports received a big applause at the conference,” Nhan said, adding that although she was very busy she often spent three to four months doing research abroad.
Nhan is also instigator of several State level maths projects. They include a number of basic matters on comulative algebra which have been applied widely.
Nhan thanked her Prof Cuong, saying 80 per cent of her achievement belongs to the professor because he helped her a lot and always with her until she successfully defended her PhD thesis.
The other prize winner, Dr Vu Thi Thu Ha, who is deputy rector of the Viet Nam Industrial Chemistry Institute, said she had dreamt of becoming an engineer or a scientist at a laboratory since she was six years old, in first grade.
Ha said that when she was a schoolgirl in the northern province of Thai Binh, her father was in the army and there was only her mother and old sister to share the work. So she had to do everything, such as repairing bicycles and patching inner tubes.
Her mother remembers images of Ha wearing shorts to bring a bicycle home to repair.
“From the 8th grade, Ha also repaired our electric appliances and water pipes at home,” the mother said
Ha said she learned repair technique by observing others.
Graduated from high school, Ha registered to enrol at the University of Technology in Ha Noi to study chemistry.
“I liked to research new things so I chose science to discover valuable ideas to apply in reality.”
However, being a scientist was very difficult, Ha said.
“For example, I have to think a lot to have a new idea but it is difficult to turn ideas into reality. There is only 20 per cent success in basic research.
“I have to invest a lot of time in my work and my family, at the expense of myself. My timetable is always full from morning until very late at night.”
At 6:30am every day Ha takes her children to school before going to work until 6:30pm when she takes the kids home and cooks the evening meal.
“After helping my children do their homework, I continue with my research and read documents,” Ha said, adding that devoting herself to science meant she had to forget her passion for shopping, cinema and travel.
However, Ha said she was lucky to have a happy family with a very good husband who was always willing to help her.
After graduating, Ha worked at the Viet Nam Industry Chemistry Institute.
“Professor Dr Mai Tuyen encourages me to improve my career abroad,” said Ha.
She received a scholarship from France’s Centre for Scientific Research after which she returned home to continue her work.
“But I was very confused because the laboratory in Viet Nam was so outdated compared with the one in France. It was difficult to do my research in such disadvantaged conditions until in 2004 our Chemistry Institute opened a modern laboratory for petrochemistry.
“I was assigned to manage the lab which helps my work a lot.”
During her two decades at the institute, Ha conducted 19 research at the State level and helped train hundreds of post university students in catalysis, oil filtering and petrochemistry technologies.
She has successfully contributed to building and developing the petrochemicals industry. She also carried out research on catalysis technology which is used in the production of environmentally friendly products to serve the country’s sustainable development.
Currently, construction is under way on two buildings in Ha Noi, a production plant to produce biodiesel with a capacity of 30,000 tonnes a year and a plant to produce sorbitol from cassava starch, with a capacity of 20,000 tonnes.
These two projects are registered at the National Office of Intellectual Property of Viet Nam.
Solvents are also part of her current interest. Ha said Viet Nam had to import a great number of solvents totalling several hundreds of tonnes every year.
“So far we have had to use fossil solvents while solvents originating from plants would be much better and not affect human health.”
To this end, a group of researchers led by Ha has co-operated with experts from France to carry out joint research on the technologies to produce biological solvents.
The scheme started in 2008 and after two years the research groups successfully developed technology to produce mixed biological solvents.
The research results have been registered as a sole invention in France and then in the world, Dr Ha said, adding that the French National Centre for Research has agreed to buy the invention because it has attracted many French industrial firms.
Under her management, the laboratory has been appreciated by foreign partners as one of the most modern labs and one which is run most effectively.
The 2011 Kovalevskaya Prize, given separately in eight developing countries including Viet Nam, was named after outstanding Russian mathematician and scientist Sophia Kovalevskaya and was instituted in 1985 by American academic couple Dr Neal and Dr Ann Koblitz to recognise scientific research by women.
“The Kovalevskaya prize is a great honour not only for us but also for the other female scientists in Viet Nam,” Ha said. — VNS
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