Dr. Nguyen Phi Le is 39 years old this year, is the Executive Director of the Center for International Research on Artificial Intelligence (BKAI), School of Information and Communication Technology (Hanoi University of Science and Technology). She got her PhD quite late (at the age of 35), but quickly rose to become a bright face in the world of research in the field of internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) in Vietnam.
On the occasion of March 8, Dr. Nguyen Phi Le had a conversation with a reporter of the Newspaper Youth about his journey to pursue scientific research.
Dr. Nguyen Phi Le shared: “Actually, my dream since childhood was to be a doctor, because I wanted to cure diseases and save lives. Thanks to the silver medal in international mathematics (IMO 2000), I was admitted directly to university. At first, I applied to Hanoi Medical University, but my parents advised me to rethink because it was too hard to work in medicine, so I switched to a technical school. I chose Hanoi University of Science and Technology, I studied for a talent class, majoring in electronics and telecommunications. After studying for a year, I received a scholarship from the Japanese Government. The most famous university in Japan – PV), majoring in information technology.
I don’t pursue theoretical math anymore because I want to switch to a field of direct application in life. But I am grateful for the time I spent majoring in math. Being good at math doesn’t mean that you will only know pure math knowledge, but it’s important that it helps you a lot in developing your logical thinking ability. When my thinking ability is good, I will be able to study any major. When I was an adult, I realized that, but when I was young, I loved math because I was passionate about learning.
When you went to Japan to study abroad, did you ever imagine what your future path would be like?
I’m not the type to have high goals, like to make a long-term plan and execute it. I usually just focus on doing well at what I’m doing. For example, if you are studying, you must study well; when you go to work, you must do your job well; and then it all comes naturally.
Does your husband work as a scientific researcher?
Are not. He also received a scholarship from the Japanese Government and studied at Tokyo Institute of Technology, coming to Japan at the same time as me. Then he also studied for a master’s degree in Japan, after finishing his studies, he went to work for a Japanese company.
Her husband does not follow the path of research, is it to shoulder the family’s economy, to give his wife peace of mind to do science?
He is also a math major, studied at the High School for Gifted Students of Natural Sciences (Hanoi National University), entered Hanoi University of Science and Technology in the same course as me. Compared to his peers, he is quite an outstanding person; When he was in grade 11 he won the third prize in the national exam for excellent students in grade 12 math. When he entered the talented engineer class of Hanoi University of Science and Technology including 2 subjects of math and physics, he got 2 points 10. What he did. not pursuing academics, I think it’s due to personality. Besides, when we just graduated from university, research was not a well-known and respected profession in Vietnam. Meanwhile, my husband is more interested in creating a career that seems a little more impressive than being a quiet scientist.
And you, why did you choose a research career?
It is also because of my personality that it naturally led me to the research profession. My life until the age of 28 was almost only study and study, so after completing my master’s degree (at Tokyo University), I didn’t want to continue studying for a doctorate, but wanted to try changing to a corporate environment. So, when I returned to Vietnam, I worked at Viettel’s R&D (research and development) Center.
At that time, the research environment in general in Vietnam was not as developed as it was later. Meanwhile, I like to do things that must use high thinking, require exploration and creativity, the academic environment is more suitable. As a Polytechnic student, I returned to Hanoi University of Science and Technology and have been engaged in research and teaching until now. In 2016, I returned to Japan to do my PhD at the National Institute of Informatics of Japan. Taking care of 2 sons at home completely depends on my husband.
Is it because to conform to personal circumstances that she accidentally created a reasonable time arrangement? Did you have 8 years of not being busy with research when your children were young, when they were older, they started to focus on research?
It is so. I got married when I was studying in Japan, gave birth to my eldest grandchild at the age of 26; I was almost 29 years old (when I returned to Vietnam) when I gave birth to my second child. In 2016, the children were older (7-9 years old), I was facilitated by my husband to focus heavily on research. Thanks to that, I am now in the post-doctoral period, the most energetic period of the researcher.
My learning path is slightly different from that of my peers. They studied in one go, so they finished their doctorates at about 30 years old. And I had a break in between, which was nice, because at that time I was still doing “kick” research, so I still had my problems ready. So, the process of my PhD study went relatively smoothly.
When I finish my doctorate, I will probably be at the age where I have a bit of experience and relationships with colleagues and friends working in the same field. Perhaps thanks to that, after returning home in 2019, I established a research group, gathered many excellent students of Hanoi University of Science and Technology and received the cooperation and support of many friends, My colleagues are both at home and abroad. I am really grateful to them. The results that I have today would not be, without those cooperation and support.
It is known that in the past, she and her husband both had the opportunity to stay and work in Japan, but then both still returned to Vietnam?
In 2010, my husband worked for a Japanese company. As for me, with a master’s degree in information technology from the University of Tokyo, finding a job in Japan is not difficult. But for many reasons, we still want to return to Vietnam. Besides, at that time, I didn’t plan to do research, but at an enterprise, so it was good to see Vietnam. And later, when I finished my doctorate in Japan, my professor introduced me to be a lecturer in a university in Osaka, but I refused, even though the conditions for doing research in Japan were very good. Firstly, because my husband and children are in Vietnam. Second, I think there are many students in Vietnam who need me.
When it comes to women doing science, especially in an Asian country like Vietnam, people often wonder how hard it is for women to overcome social barriers, such as prejudice against women. “Weak legs soft hands”?
Women doing science in Vietnam are not affected by these barriers. It is true that in many other Asian countries (such as Japan, Korea, etc.), society often has stereotypes about women. In Japan, for example, women traditionally do not participate in social work, only work in the family. So when women go to work, especially doing research, they are often seen as someone who has something different. When successful, they will receive “praise” such as “she’s a woman, but…” In the scientific research environment in Vietnam, I noticed that women are not considered considered. is the “weak sex”. I don’t know if this is a disadvantage or not for women, but this makes society’s assessment of women’s success equal to that of men.
That means they will see her as good and capable, not because she is female, so she should be favored for help?
That’s right, I don’t see that prejudice.
So in your opinion, what are the barriers for female scientists in Vietnam?
I realize that doing scientific research in Vietnam is not only very difficult for women but also for men. They have to be really passionate and persistent to do it, because they are not given favorable economic conditions compared to many other industries. The income of researchers compared to people with similar qualifications but working in some other industries is certainly much lower. Then the feeling of self-pity when I keep doing martial arts while receiving very little support from around…, both men and women face it.
Due to social factors, whether in the East or the West, women still face many difficulties in reaching the top research. Is that right in your opinion?
Only partially correct. In fact, women have many endearing qualities that befit the researcher. In order to pursue a career in research, in addition to a good foundation of thinking, it is necessary to have some virtues such as perseverance, curiosity, and passion. But perseverance is often the sister superior to the brother. When I was a math student, every time I encountered a problem that I couldn’t find a solution to, I thought about it everywhere I went; Dreaming of solving math problems. Now too, when I have a question it’s always in my head, I’m thinking about it all the time.
Then the guys at my school still joked that in Vietnam, the girls doing research are more convenient than the teachers. Because doing research in Vietnam is poor, they often have a supportive husband so they can do research with peace of mind, while teachers have to shoulder the burden of economic breadth for the family. If you think about it, what the teachers say makes sense. When I first came to Hanoi University of Science and Technology, the salary of lecturers was very low (now thanks to the autonomy mechanism, the income is much better). There is also money to make a topic, but it’s not worth much, and not everyone has a sponsored topic. It is true that doing research is just for passion, so if there is an economic support so that I can study with peace of mind, it will be a great advantage.
But if you look at it more broadly, women once working (not just doing research) have to work a lot harder than men if they want to be successful, to balance work and family. I am fortunate to have a husband who is knowledgeable, understands his wife very well, is willing to shoulder more of the family work so that his wife can study and research with peace of mind.
In the end, are you still satisfied with your choice (becoming a researcher)?
Perhaps the path I’m on is the one that suits me best. So if there’s something that I’m not satisfied with, I just have to overcome it by myself, because life is never perfect. Wherever I am, there will be times from time to time, there are things that make me feel unsatisfied.