From village student to top world scientist

By Binh Minh   February 18, 2023 | 08:00 pm PT
Pham Minh Thong, once a struggling student in rural central Vietnam, is among the top 2% of scientists in the world.

Thong, a lecturer in the faculty of construction engineering at Curtin University in Australia, is among 2% of scientists cited the most since 2020, according to data collected by Stanford University and Elsevier, a Dutch academic publishing company.

He will become an associate professor in June.

"I never thought I could go this far," Thong told VnExpress.

Doctor Pham Minh Thong talks at an international conference in Brisbane, Australia in 2019. Photo courtesy of Thong

Doctor Pham Minh Thong talks at an international conference in Brisbane, Australia in 2019. Photo courtesy of Thong

The 37-year-old scholar has been making outstanding academic achievements ever since he was a secondary student in Hoa Tri Commune, Phu Yen Province. In the ninth grade, he won the provincial math contest for excellent students.

When Thong got into Luong Van Chanh High School for the Gifted, he struggled at first as he was unable to solve math problems while his peers could even solve them in two or three different ways.

In order to keep himself from being left behind, Thong bought more math books to teach himself.

Every day, he woke up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. to exercise and then study before going to school. And he always went to bed before 10 p.m.

Thong went to live with his grandparents in those days, as the high school was far from his parents’ home.

"My grandfather told me that a successful day would make a successful week, month, year, or even a life," he said. "To have a successful day, I woke up early to have a healthy mind and good health."

His efforts eventually paid off.

During high school, Thong was always in the top five students in his class.

In 2004, he passed the university exam and became a student at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the HCMC University of Technology. At the same time, he won a scholarship to study at a university in Russia.

However, Thong chose to study in Vietnam. After five years, he graduated from the HCMC University of Technology as class valedictorian and was retained there to work as a lecturer.

After that, he focused on improving his English. In 2011, he was awarded a fully-funded PhD Scholarship at Wollongong University in Australia.

As he had not gotten a master’s degree yet, Thong selected a program combining master's and Ph.D. degrees that he could complete within four years. However, after looking at his profile, Professor Muhammad Hadi from Wollongong University advised him to study for his Ph.D. without first getting his master's degree.

The professor said he was impressed by the hard-working Vietnamese student.

Hadi also agreed to make Thong his teaching assistant.

"The decision was a big step for me to improve my English," Thong said.

As a teaching assistant, he was in charge of summarizing lectures, answering students' questions, and instructing them to do homework.

However, the students talked fast and had different accents, which made Thong very confused. Sometimes, he could not understand them even though he had asked them to repeat what they said at least twice.

"I could clearly see how disappointed they were when I could not understand their questions," recalled Thong. "Because of that, I determined to study harder to understand them."

On the weekends, he joined almost all the English clubs he knew about.

As an assistant, Thong patiently explained things to students who were not very intelligent while he challenged the smarter ones with different ways of solving math exercises.

By end of the first semester, his professor was surprised by the positive feedback the students had about the Vietnamese teaching assistant.

Working as a teaching assistant, Thong did not forget to make time to do research.

"Those days, I came to school at 7 a.m. and stayed until 9 p.m.," he said, "but still, all I wanted was for the morning to come soon so that I could get back to that routine."

It took him only two years to complete his PhD research instead of three.

At the end of his second year at Wollongong University, he won the award for the best graduate student in the School of Civil, Mining, and Environmental Engineering, and received a certificate of merit for the best doctoral thesis.

"Not many students have achieved this honor. Thong’s doctoral thesis was praised by both reviewers," said Professor Hadi. As a rule, a doctoral thesis has to be assessed by two reviewers, the supervisor and a second reviewer.

Doctor Thong with his wife and children at their home in Australia during the 2022 Lunar New Year in January 2022. Photo courtesy of Thong

Doctor Thong with his wife and children at their home in Australia during the Lunar New Year in January 2022. Photo courtesy of Thong

From 2013 to now, Thong has published more than 160 academic papers in international science journals

His research mostly focuses on materials recycled from industrial waste and household waste such as bottles, tires, husks, and corncobs.

In 2020, Thong officially became a lecturer at Curtin University.

At a talk with students at Luong Van Chanh High School for the Gifted in his hometown in January, Thong told the students that to be successful, everyone needs to learn from their own failures.

He even failed several times in asking for funding for scientific research although he had received high evaluations. From this experience, he realized that he should choose topics that are more applicable.

The scientist has recently begun to focus on improving prefabricated house construction engineering. After being tested, the structures he designed have proved to cost less and save construction time.

Thong also proposed ideas for concrete structures which could resist heavy loads and fire.

Last year, his structure designed to protect buildings against bombs, bullets, and terrorist activities was awarded US$750,000 from the Australian Research Council, according to Curtin University.

Expanding social networks is also a tip to be successful, Thong said.

He often sends emails to get connected with others or asks his friends to connect him with experts in the sectors that he focuses on.

"Learning from failure, improving myself, maintaining a great passion, and fighting till the end is the key to achieving success in one's career," Thong explained.

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