A Journey

-- a short writing for the International Network Newsletters, 2000

I was born and raised in Vietnam. Due to my father's medical condition, to help my family I had to work since I was eleven years old as a cigarette street seller, and a farmer handyman. The poor living conditions, the hard work, the responsibility to my seven younger siblings has helped build my perseverance. I would never imagine that one day I would depend on that character to survive and eventually to succeed in a new world.

In 1980, I escaped Vietnam by boat to avoid being drafted for the war with Cambodia. Surviving a near-death ordeal of five days floating on the South Pacific Ocean with practically no drinking water, I was rescued and brought to a refugee camp in Thailand and finally sponsored by an American dairy farmer in northern Minnesota. My life has turned a new chapter, a new beginning and perhaps a completely new life.

From Saigon, a city of 10 million people to a dairy farm in rural Wolf Lake, Minnesota, a town of 200, with no English communication ability was a real culture shock. I am still amused remembering that in those days I would get my arms rather than my mouth tired in trying to communicate with my foster parents! With help from my foster parents and high school teachers, I was able to get accepted into North Dakota State University on a probation basis. Four years of college was the toughest challenge in my life. I kept reminding myself that I have survived my younger years ­ I will SURVIVE this. In 1985, I graduated with honors in Chemistry, with minors in Physics, Computer Science, Mathematics and Statistics. I told myself that I have made it and was about to accept a good job offer to enjoy the American way of life. My advisor, Prof. Mark Gordon, convinced me not to stop suffering! Well, I endured another five years of graduate school at the University of Minnesota and finally obtained my Ph.D. degree in Chemistry in 1990, ten years after my first step on American soil with nothing but a pair of old clothes. After a short two years of postdoctoral work at the University of Houston, I accepted an Assistant Professorship in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I guess I am a real proof that America is still a land of opportunity! Being a professor or a scientist had never entered my thought or dreams when I was in Vietnam or even during my years in college. Looking back, it is sure a long journey - a journey that began with a very high probability of death and no known destination. The only things that I brought along with me were my acceptance that it is the price that I have to pay for freedom if I die and the promise to my father that I will get an education if I live.

Currently I am an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Utah. Beside enjoying teaching both graduate and undergraduate chemistry classes, I have established a research program in theoretical and computational chemistry to address some key and fundamental issues in environmental chemistry, catalysis science, and combustion chemistry.

I would not say that being a professor is a way to enjoy the American way of life, but I certainly would say that I enjoy the beauty of Utah, the collegiality of my colleagues, and above all the opportunity to collaborate with scientists, students and postdocs from all over the world: from USA, Russia, India, China, Thailand, Japan, Denmark, England, Poland, Latvia, Columbia, Australia and many more to come.