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by Geoffrey Cain

Beckoned Homeward

A professor leaves a stellar U.S. career to train biomedical engineers in Vietnam.

“It has always been my dream to help my country.” Vo Van ToiHO CHI MINH CITY — Vo Van Toi’s biomedical engineering laboratory seems almost surreal against its surroundings. Outside, cattle roam leafy fields and vendors peddle sugar cane from wooden huts. Inside are a near-infrared spectroscopy machine, which measures oxygen content in blood, and a CT scanner. The contrast pretty much sums up Vietnam’s current state of development: It’s a relatively poor nation, with per-capita GDP of $3,000, trying to follow its larger Asian neighbors’ leap into an era of skyscrapers and international commerce, propelled by new technology.

To make the transition, Vietnam needs to train more engineers and scientists. If it doesn’t, warns a 2009 government report, its growth will recede in the coming years. “There’s a lack of competent engineers who are capable of fixing problems,” Vo says. Intel learned this lesson two years ago. When the company was building a $1 billion chip factory outside Ho Chi Minh City, it gave a screening exam on basic technology topics to 2,000 graduating students. Only 90 passed. While the country does have a high literacy rate of 90 percent, a focus on rote memorization and theory has created a shortage of skilled workers, argues Thomas J. Vallely, director of the Vietnam Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

So Vietnam is reaching out to diaspora Vietnamese, seeking to persuade academics to return to their former homeland and train students in advanced skills. In Vo, who left Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the country grabbed a star. With a doctorate from Switzerland, he worked as a postdoctoral fellow at a combined Harvard-MIT biomedical engineering center before joining Tufts University two decades ago. A specialist in ophthalmology equipment, he created Tufts’s biomedical engineering program and helped launch its biomedical engineering department in 2003.

Vietnam uses both a patriotic tug and good wages – up to 10 times more than faculty members earn at some of its universities – to lure back well-trained scientists. But in truth, Vo, who took early retirement from Tufts to come here, may not have been that hard to persuade. “It has always been my dream,” he says, “to help my country.” While still at Tufts, he was tapped for the board of the Vietnam Education Foundation, a U.S. agency set up to help Vietnam improve higher education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine. Taking a leave from Tufts, he became the agency’s executive director, setting up, among other initiatives, an academic job fair to attract Vietnamese students abroad. For five years, he has also organized conferences that attract scholars here from all over North America, Europe, and Asia.

Vo accepted a professorship at the International University at the Vietnam National University, where he founded the biomedical engineering department that now oversees about 60 students. He anticipates a big demand for his graduates. “This is a good time,” Vo says. “Medical device consumption here is huge, while the local supply is almost nonexistent.” The government funded his lab’s spectroscopy machine; a hospital donated the CT scanner.

Vietnam’s drive to be a player in the global economy is evident in ways other than winning back its skilled nationals. The International University, for example, offers instruction only in English, and sends many students for two years of training in the United States, Britain, and Australia. Vietnam is also appealing to foreign governments. One school based on the German curriculum, the Vietnamese-German University in Ho Chi Minh City, opened its doors two years ago to 32 students. It’s set to finish building its campus by 2016, enrolling 12,000 students.

But Vo and his students are working to ensure that their lab’s technology doesn’t forsake Vietnamese outside the rising cities. They’re developing small telemedicine devices, so doctors in large cities can monitor patients in remote areas.

Geoffrey Cain is a freelance writer based in Asia.




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