At the 2nd Vietnam Conference on Earth and Environmental Sciences last August, Dr. Nguyen Thi Huyen Trang, the first female keynote speaker of the program, presented her research on the role of microbial activity in setting the ocean carbon flux – a vital factor to the stability of our global climate. Her work has been published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, one of the prestigious international scientific journals that covers the natural sciences. By combining interdisciplinary approaches including biochemical, molecular, and modeling techniques, she defines the mechanisms under which microbial communities respond to and mediate biogeochemical cycling. This mechanistic understanding then allows her to develop predictive tools to quantitatively measure the functional shifts of microbial communities in a changing environment and the potential feedback of the microbial community dynamics on the environment.
As a young scientist who has dedicated her passion to researching, few people know that Dr. Huyen Trang had a rather difficult start to her career. Talking with her, we cannot help but admire her passion and contributions to the Vietnamese science community and the international scene at large. Meeting her in person, we feel warmed by her vibrant and energetic vibe. It is also this incredible energy from Dr. Trang that makes students more engaging and interested in scientific theories, which can be quite dry and hard to keep up with. On the other hand, she shares that she is fueled with motivation by Fulbright students’ curiosity, especially when they ask her very sharp (hardball) questions.
Together, let’s find out more about Dr. Trang’s journey and passion for microbiology.
Good morning, Dr. Trang! Can you share with us a bit about your journey to becoming a microbiologist?
It is very difficult to pinpoint when or why I started to develop this passion for sciences, but one thing for sure is that I have always been curious to explore new knowledge and to understand how the world around us works. When it was time to apply to universities, I almost followed the traditional path that my father had planned for me, which was the Banking Academy. My father, like many parents at that time, wanted me to have a stable job for life, as a girl should. However, on the very morning that I had to submit the paperwork, I made a last-minute U-turn to pursue my passion for sciences, which can easily be the boldest decision of my life. Thankfully, my mother supported my choice and then, my path in science just progressed naturally.
In the diverse fields of earth and environmental sciences, microbiology is the field that excites me the most. Microorganisms are so tiny that we cannot see them with the naked eye, yet they hold mighty power over the environment. Everything around us is covered and composed of microorganisms – they are on our skin, in our stomach, in the water, soil, air, etc..
Therefore, any study of microorganisms has the potential to scale up its findings to global solutions. Any discovery about them will help us have a better understanding of our living environment.
As a young scientist with bold passion, you must have faced many difficult challenges. How do you know that you are on the right track and persevere through?
Me, I love the challenges of sciences for they always give me something to cultivate my curiosity. Though, I also had to accept that this academic pursuit can be taxing at times. I was fortunate to become a fellow of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF) and received financial support to pursue Ph.D. and post-doc research in the United States. Back then, being the youngest fellow and also shooting for a rather new major at the time – Environmental Sciences, it was a bit lonely. At my research lab, I was always the only Vietnamese, among very few Asians, and the only female represented.
Like most scientists, I was used to working at the lab till late, only leaving work when it was so dark and cold outside. And for my specific major, researchers often have to be exposed to toxic gases. So yes, there were moments of doubt that whether or not such sacrifices of my health and my youth were worth it. Yet, I found solace in new discoveries, when my research progressed, and when I could write reports and share the findings with family and friends. It’s the “aha!” moments in science that keep me going.
Many Vietnamese scholars choose to stay abroad for their career prospects. Did you have any doubt or hesitation when deciding to return to Vietnam?
Though Vietnam is still catching up with the world in terms of research conditions and laboratory facilities, objectively speaking, we have an environment so rich in great research questions that I aspire to explore.
There are silver linings to the lack of modern technology. In developed countries, research can become dependent on modern tools with built-in smart algorithms, and as a result, the research process can become a black box. In contrast, when doing research the traditional way, we are forced to think and pull knowledge from all disciplines to connect the dots and work the problem out. Hence, it trains us to flexibly adapt to the ever-changing environment.
You were one of four keynote speakers at the Vietnam Conference on Earth and Environmental Sciences (VCEES) 2022, and this is also the first time the conference has a female scientist as the keynote speaker, how did you feel?
I was really happy to represent the “minority” in sciences. Before this conference, I was also the only female panelist on Science and Technology Day 2022 organized by the Institute of Mathematics under the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology in Hanoi.
Although females are still the minority in the scientific community, their contributions are not to be overlooked. Just like microorganisms, they can be small in size but they are an essential influence on the global ecosystem.
Similarly, although Vietnam is still a developing country, we have no less of a responsibility to protect the environment than other countries across the globe. For example, we are the second largest rice exporter in the world. A 1-meter rise in sea level due to climate change can cause saltwater intrusion and change the entire farming conditions in the Mekong Delta, which in turn will have devastating effects on our food supply chain. In tune with the message emphasized throughout the VCEES 2022, my research focused on the microbiome to provide perspectives and solutions from local micro problems to global macro challenges.
For many people, science can be dry, obscure, and complex. How do you make science more approachable in class?
This past semester at Fulbright, I teach Scientific Inquiry and Introduction to Environmental Sciences. This semester, I took the students to Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, which has been recognized by UNESCO for its biodiversity with its characteristic mangrove ecosystem; and Vietnam Waste Solutions in Binh Chanh, where they have waste-to-energy process to help alleviate the waste burdens on our environment. In combination with knowledge learned in class, these field trips can help students better understand the surrounding nature and have a more comprehensive view of the impact that humans lay on the environment through daily activities. Thereby, they take action and lead a more sustainable lifestyle, contributing to the world’s efforts to protect the environment.
I am also really delighted that the students are proactive in their learning – they have great visions and plans to pursue such diverse passions. I remember even before I officially joined Fulbright, I was already impressed with these bright students. So when we interviewed for the faculty position, we had to teach a demo class to test out the chemistry with the students and how each lecturer would have a different way to engage in class. The topic I chose for this demo session was soil microbiology, which is rarely discussed in Vietnam. And I was so happy to see the students actively engaged in the classroom, raising some very sharp questions.
The field trips you designed in your classes align very closely with the environmental issue around us. Is that an intention to encourage young Vietnamese to be more invested and proactive in solving Vietnam’s local problems?
Through interactions inside and outside the classroom, I hope students can grasp the current situation of environmental issues in Vietnam. Even if they do not plan to pursue scientific research, they still have a clearer perception of the societal landscape. Just starting with small actions such as reducing plastic bags or cycling instead of driving, we can add to the ripple effects towards more sustainable living habits for the whole community. Even the biggest problems will need solving from the smallest aspects. And that is why I am in love with the study of microorganisms, for they are so tiny, yet so mighty.
I truly have faith in the students at Fulbright University Vietnam. They are curious and eager to learn. They are not afraid of challenges. And they ask the toughest questions. As a lecturer, my job is to give them the tools – the foundation knowledge, so that they can use multidisciplinary thinking to find their approaches and solutions for the challenges of their communities, ones that are closest to their hearts.
Thank you so much, Dr. Huyen Trang, for your enthusiastic sharing with Fulbright! We wish you all health and happiness for the new year, to continue inspiring generations of Vietnamese youths and contributing to the scientific community.