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“Grit: A Combination of Passion, Perseverance and Persistence”

Prof. Nam-Trung Nguyen, an alumni of Chemnitz University of Technology and a renowned expert for micro/nanofluidics with 20,000 citations to his works, first enrolled at Karl-Marx-Stadt University of Technology in 1988. Thirty one years on, he talks about his experiences in Chemnitz, about studying in Germany and his subsequent career.

Prof. Nam-Trung Nguyen, what was your experience like when you studied as an international student in Chemnitz University of Technology in the 90s and 2004?

My experience at Chemnitz University of Technology actually stretched from the late 80s to the mid 90s. This period was extremely interesting and formative for me. I started my first semester in the late summer of 1988 at Karl-Marx-Stadt University of Technology. I left Chemnitz with a PhD degree in 1997. The Wall collapsed and so had the German Democratic Republic, when I was in my second year of undergraduate study. Thus, my student life would better be categorized into pre and post reunification periods. In a few words, pre reunification experience was socialist solidarity, life was planned – not much freedom, but free from worries. The post reunification experience could be described as survival, freedom, self-determination and opportunities. I went back to Chemnitz in 2004 to defend my habilitation degree.

What are the core things you learned during your studentship in Chemnitz University of Technology that are still important in your life today?

I have learned many things during my time in Chemnitz that are still with me today. First, I learned that true friendship lasts for a life time, it doesn’t matter pre or post reunification. I have had great German friends, teachers and mentors who imparted many values on me that became my own till today. The empathy, solidarity and love they have given to me continue with myself toward my own students and colleagues. I grew up in post-war Vietnam, so hard work, discipline and persistence were probably already in me before coming to Germany. However, punctuality, order, precision and high standards for everything you do, may come from my student time in Chemnitz.

How did you become an Olympiad for German as Foreign Language of Chemnitz University of Technology?

The GDR system required a high standard for German as a Foreign Language. There were 3 levels of proficiency. I completed level 1 in Vietnam at the National University in Hanoi, level 2 in Zwickau and continued level 3 in Chemnitz. Level 3 was not compulsory, as level 2 was sufficient to start a university course. At the end of level 3, I participated probably on the last Olympiad for German as Foreign Language of the University in 1989. The first winner was a Bulgarian student who already won the year before. I was a first timer and the runner-up. The third place went to a North Korean doctoral student. The price was a trip to Prague with the Free German Youth (Freie Deutsche Jugend or FDJ). Thanks to the trip, I could get my passport back from the Vietnamese Embassy in Berlin, where our passports were kept, and was allowed to travel. When the wall collapsed the Vietnamese Embassy later returned the passports to us and told us, that we were on our own from that moment. We were lucky, because Cuban and North Korean students all had to go back home after the German reunification.

What were the initial challenges you faced as an international student when you first arrived to study for your Masters’ degree here?

In my time, the first degree was the diploma that took 5 years or more to obtain. I could not take myself as a typical international student, because I was a scholarship winner. In the mid 80s, high school students in Vietnam would need to make a university entrance examination on top of the high-school diploma. Only 5% of the probably 500,000 cohort gained their places in universities. Probably 5% of these lucky people then had a chance to win a scholarship to study in the former socialist countries. I was the second best student in terms of score from the entrance examination to Hanoi University of Technology and won a scholarship to a country of my choice. I selected GDR. So my undergraduate study in Chemnitz was not really a big deal, particularly in mathematics, physics and technical courses. However, my biggest problem was Marxism/Leninism, not only because of the language, but also because of the boring nonsense. I managed to pass this subject with grade two.

What can you say about Germans generally as someone who was an international student in Germany?

Most of us like to have stereotypes, because we are lazy thinkers. I saw the opportunity to study in Germany as a chance of total immersion into the German culture. And I mean “total”. To be honest, I did not see a difference between me and my fellow German students. I just want to give you an example of how difficult it is to judge people. In the ten years in Chemnitz, I have had two German girlfriends, both are highly intelligent, empathetic, loving and share common interests with me, such as reading. Thirty years forward, one is now supporting Syrian refugees in Chemnitz, the other is working for the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Bundestag. How can I stereotype the Germans?

What advice or information can you share with us -- who are looking forward to becoming successful scientists and researchers like yourself?

Just one word: “grit”, a combination of passion, perseverance and persistence. Of course, one should have the advanced knowledge in the subject matter as a prerequisite.

What are the failures and challenges you faced on your way and how did you overcome them?

There have been many challenges. I have been working in four continents, Europe, North America, Asia and Oceania. Every time I moved, I started practically as an outsider in a completely new culture and working environment. Leaving behind the network of friends and colleagues, the so-called social asset, is the biggest challenge to get things done and to be successful. The keys for the success of a researcher are not only the great ideas but also the resources to implement and to proliferate the results. I always struggled to get funding and financial support when I started my research in a new country. But, with grit, everything is possible. I’m currently the director of a relatively large research centre and one of the university leaders. For this job, one would need other skills such as leadership that are not taught in school or university.

What is your most current research area of interests and their impact on the future of technology?

I’m known as one of the pioneers of the field called “microfluidics and nanofluidics”, the science and technology dealing with small amount of liquid. Here are few snapshots of my current research activities. The first area is digital microfluidics with liquid marbles, tiny droplets coated with a non-wetting shell. The technology will allow for the significant reduction of plastic waste from laboratory and medical tests. The second area is organ on a chip, making functioning miniaturized models of lungs, hearts, guts, skin, brains for drug testing. This technology will make animal tests unnecessary and medical treatment individualized for every patient. The third area is sensing technologies for harsh and unconventional environments. Examples are sensors that can last the high temperature and the harsh environment of space vehicles. Other examples are flexible sensing systems on skin or implantable in the body for monitoring a person health condition. All these areas are supported by fundamental research in microscale physics, mechanobiology and biochemistry.

Which of your researches do you think has had the highest influence on your career so far?

I think the works on engineering of microfluidic devices. Although my research nowadays is interdisciplinary, I’m still an engineer at heart, and I’m proud of my German or Chemnitzer engineering background. Chemnitz University of Technology has given me a very solid fundament in physics and engineering.

Why did you choose the development of micro/nano technologies and their applications in micro/nanofluidic as well as micro-electromechanical systems as your specialty?

I did not choose these areas. I was sent to GDR with a fixed plan and wanted to follow my father’s career to become a mechanical engineer. There was only a place in Chemnitz available and I could only study precision engineering. This discipline later evolved into micro-electromechanical systems. I did my attachment and diploma at Bosch in Stuttgart and worked on flow sensors and fuel injection systems. That is how my earlier work on microfluidics started.

What was it like growing up in Vietnam?

It was tough. If you know people from the German post-war generation, they could tell you how post-war life was like. I was 5 when the Vietnam war ended. The country was bombed to bits, the people were tired, everything was in short supply. In contrast to the victorious propaganda, the prices for Vietnam’s unification were hunger, rationed commodity and isolation to the world outside of the communist bloc. Even papers for printing books were rationed. I have been always a book lover and remember that I had to collect about 20 kg of old papers for recycling to exchange for a new book off the press. You cannot imagine the happiness of getting a new book after such a lengthy and laborious process, including transporting the recycling papers with my barely functioning bicycle across Hanoi. I mentioned “grit” earlier, perhaps it come from this early time.

Outside of academics, what do you do to relax in your spare or leisure time?

I read a lot and in different languages. I recently picked up the challenge to read the Chinese classics “The Romance of Three Kingdoms” in the original Chinese version. I have a big house in Australia and spend a lot of time gardening. My two elder kids are already adults, but my last one is only 9 years old. I spend a lot of time with him playing soccer and hiking in the forest near our house.

Were you born a genius? Because your academic records show you have always been a high-flyer.

I would not say I was born a genius, but perhaps gifted. I went to school at the age of 5, went to gifted school for mathematics, topped the toughest examination in Vietnam, became one of the most respectable scientists in my field, fluent in Vietnamese, German and English, and can draw and paint not badly. So yes, I’m gifted and lucky.

How do you balance research work, teaching and spending time with family?

That is the hard bit of my life. Academia in the US, Asia and Australia is a bit different than in Germany. It is a competitive, swim-or-sink, publish-or-perish world. So being gifted will not help much if you don’t work hard. The stereotyped German habits of punctuality and discipline help me here. I have a very disciplined personal time and energy management regime. I have time to exercise for at least 30 minutes every day, to bring and to pick up my young son to and from school, to spend some time with him and of course a lot of work too, writing papers, research grant proposals, managing 60-70 people, teaching and attending meetings.

Did you ever imagine making the kind of impact you have made in your field when you were young?

To be honest, when I was young or when I was in Chemnitz, I did not know what I would do the next day. I did my PhD because I would have to return to Vietnam and leave my dear friends back in Germany. I spent a lot of time going to clubs and discos. Only after getting married and having the first child, things became more serious, strategic and well planned.

What characteristics do you think set you apart from your fellow students and researchers?

Nothing special. I’m perhaps a natural leader having a sense of empathy and good research ideas. I can bring people from the most diverse backgrounds together to deliver results even with limited resources. I graduated to date almost 30 PhD students from all over the world: China, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Iran, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Australia. Most of them went on to become successful professors and senior researchers.

(Interview: Olayemi Richard Obagboye, a second year student of Web Engineering at the Faculty of Informatics)

Mario Steinebach

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