Journey to Become a Professor in the U.S. of a HUST Alumnus

Monday - 27/11/2023 04:24
Once feeling regretful for never touching an international medal and stumbling a few times during studies at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, Nguyen Trung Quan never ceased pursuing his passion for robotics and eventually became a professor after 5 years in the United States.
Nguyen Trung Quan, born in 1989, is currently a Robotics professor at the University of Southern California, ranked in the top 10 in technology among American universities. The lecturer from Nghe An province, Vietnam had to surpass fierce competition among numerous candidates to be selected for this position in 2019. Previously, this was the university that rejected his scholarship application for a Ph.D.

"This seems like fate, but it's also the result of a long journey. I feel very fortunate but also very satisfied with the efforts I've put in that have brought unexpected outcomes," he said.

The Path to the U.S. for the Engineering Student of HUST
Trung Quan had a passion for robots since he was at young ages. Consequently, he was fascinated with assembling or creating robots from household materials. Realizing that Physics had much in common with his interests, he delved into studying it passionately.

During his time in the Physics specialized class at Phan Boi Chau High School (Nghe An), Quan passed the entrance exam with almost perfect scores and was assessed as the best student in the Physics team for many years. Therefore, he became a great hope for his homeroom teacher and the school since he was in the 10th grade. In the 11th grade, he competed and won the third prize in the national excellent student contest. Quan said this was also motivation for him to hope and determine to excel the following year.
Professor Nguyen Trung Quan
However, in the national excellent student contest in the 12th grade, he still won the third prize. This caused Quan to miss the opportunity to enter the selection round for the international competition team.

After this stumble, encouraged by family and teachers, Quan matured, overcoming the early setback, facing and surmounting many challenges in his later life and career. "That was the first difficulty and also a significant lesson that made me more mature. Afterward, I viewed this failure as motivation to strive further to pursue my passion and assert myself. Since then, I have always believed that success is not a specific destination but a continuous journey of striving. I also owe gratitude to my homeroom teacher for always believing in and encouraging me even when I didn't achieve the desired results. It helped me regain confidence and strive even more later on to not disappoint the trust of my teacher and family," he recalled.

Also because of his passion for the field of Robotics, when directly admitted to university, despite family encouragement to choose Foreign Trade University because "it's a trend," he remained determined to pursue the Automation Control field at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST). Later, he passed the Talented Engineer program.
Professor Nguyen Trung Quan and his family
During his time at HUST, Quan mentioned that "grades were not his strong suit." In fact, he stumbled a few times in some subjects.

Not emphasizing grades, but feeling excited when reading about things he liked and wanted to do something significant, urged him to start researching. From the fourth year, Quan began enthusiastically studying domestic and international documents related to robotics. At that time, he still did not have any intention of studying abroad.

"I simply wanted to see what the world was doing. I usually didn't set specific goals for what I needed to achieve, where to study abroad. But I always wanted to strive, pursue my passion, and desire to assert myself as well as contribute something significant to humanity. Since childhood, I have wanted to create robots that can walk like humans. Later, when I studied at university, I learned that to create them, I needed a very solid theoretical foundation in many different areas. Therefore, I just explored step by step, identified problems, and proposed research directions with the guidance of my professor."

While many students see doing projects as a mandatory requirement, Quan always took the initiative to understand because he always felt fascinated and wanted to delve deeper into his research topic. Unexpectedly, after 1 year, Quan achieved research results beyond expectations. His paper was subsequently published at an international conference on Control, Automation, and Systems, something he had never thought of a year before.

Having the opportunity to meet many experts in the same field at the conference, as a catalyst, Quan began to nurture a desire to venture out into the world. After returning to Korea, he researched to gain an overview of schools in the U.S. system, while also learning about the Ph.D. application process.

In addition, he listed pioneer universities in the Robotics field that he wanted to pursue, such as Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Southern California...
Professor Quan and his students in the lab
Although starting late, he mentioned that the process of applying for his Ph.D. proceeded smoothly thanks to his initiative and a continuous passion. Besides, suitability for the position was also crucial.

"I was fortunate to meet a good mentor with a suitable direction for me. Before applying to Carnegie Mellon University, I contacted and was interviewed by the professor, who agreed to let me do a trial at the lab."

After 2-3 weeks, the Vietnamese young man impressed the professor with his proactivity, creativity, and work efficiency despite the very short trial period. Consequently, the professor trusted Quan's abilities and committed to accepting him into the lab.

Thinking that everything had been settled, Quan received the second "shock." The university's Ph.D. admissions committee could not accept his application because his IELTS score did not meet the requirements. The university only gave him 2 weeks to resubmit the certificate, raising the score from 6.5 to 7.0 with no skill below 6.5.

"This was almost unthinkable because getting 'half a point' in the IELTS usually involves much effort for a whole year," he said.

But difficulties were also pressures to fight, so he focused on practicing and did the test every week, luckily, he achieved the requirement on the second attempt. As a result, he was admitted as a research student at Carnegie Mellon University, the world's number one university in Robotics and AI.

Becoming a Robotics Lecturer
The Ph.D. program in the U.S. lasted 5 years, but Quan said at that time, he had a huge motivation, his family. "Therefore, besides time for the family, I always concentrated intensely on my studies and research. Initiative, creativity, and suitability with the research topic also greatly helped me in the research process. Thanks to that, I successfully defended my doctoral thesis after 3.5 years and was fortunately chosen as the outstanding doctoral thesis."

Another stroke of luck was that his research directions were approved and supported by the professor, making the implementation smooth. His doctoral thesis was also chosen as the most outstanding research honored at the graduation ceremony.

"Even when doing my Ph.D., I never thought I would have many opportunities in becoming a professor in the U.S. because I knew it was very difficult and highly competitive. But like the previous times, when I did and saw myself having an opportunity, I continued to strive to seize it."

One of his papers was also highly evaluated at the top Robotics conference. With these results, at the end of 2017, after graduating with a Ph.D., he was accepted into a Postdoc position (after the doctorate) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This time, he chose a guiding professor in the same field but focused on the design aspect with the desire to learn more to expand his research direction.

During this time, his research was all about legged robots that could overcome obstacles and unexpected terrains or in dangerous environments such as construction sites, space exploration... He focused on developing algorithms so that these robots, when put into practice, would function smoothly, meeting different terrains and conditions.

Ending this stage, he owned 14 internationally published papers and left a "resounding" impact in the field. Thanks to this, surpassing fierce competition among numerous candidates, he was accepted as a Robotics professor at the University of Southern California.

"Professor positions in the U.S. are usually quite limited. Even with some fields, only 1-2 people are accepted every few years. Therefore, most applications submitted are highly competitive."

Once worried because he was a foreigner, Quan believed that there was no other way but to self-study, focus on enhancing knowledge, honing related skills, and his own capabilities.

Currently, after 4 years of teaching at a U.S. university, whenever he interacts with students, he often shares his own story. He also advises students to find their passion and have a clear direction and goal.

"People with strong personalities and early direction will fervently pursue a field, overcoming any difficulties."

Moreover, he also believes that being proactive is essential. "On my journey so far, I have always felt lucky to have good mentors. But it's not just actively finding a suitable mentor for myself, but also needs to proactively propose what I want to do. My previous mentors during and after the Ph.D. are 'big names' in the Robotics field. I'm lucky to have such mentors, which facilitated me to follow the right path that I am passionate about."
Source: Vietnamnet
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