The new Vietnam

Two Vietnamese students will study engineering at Tufts this fall

A Tufts Biomedical engineer took a group of professors and researchers to Vietnam on what turned out to be a practical and sometimes poignant journey. The goal was to assess the needs of Vietnam in terms of biomedical engineering and to consider establishing collaborative programs with the United States.

tufts engineers in vietnam

Tufts engineers, Vo Van Toi, holding sign, and David Kaplan, third from right, with the rest of the scientific delegation that traveled to Vietnam.

For Vo Van Toi, who organized the trip, the journey was also a chance for another visit to the homeland he left in 1968 to study science and engineering in Switzerland. For other members of the delegation, the trip forged connections with each other and the people they met, while also serving as a link to a country that had been at war with the United States.

Beyond the war
“I think in America we talk a lot about Vietnam in a painful way,” said Toi, who first returned to his country in 1990. “And I think most Americans who go there are curious and want to know if Vietnam is something else than just the war. There’s a little bit of fear and bitterness, but with the people in our group, I saw that everyone was amazed by the hospitality of the Vietnamese people and the beauty of the country.”

Toi, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to find out how the United States could help Vietnam develop training and expertise in biomedical engineering and assess the country’s needs in this area. He invited scientists and professors from five universities, including Tufts, as well as the National Institutes of Health, and arranged meetings at three major Vietnamese universities, local industries and research institutions. The group traveled from January 3 to 15.

As a result of the trip, the group has written a report for the NSF, proposing a five-year plan for collaborating on biomedical engineering programs between the United States and Vietnam in which Toi hopes Tufts will take the lead. As a more immediate result, two Vietnamese students, both women, will enroll this fall in the Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering at Tufts School of Engineering. One student is from Hanoi, and the other is from Ho Chi Minh City.

Biomedical engineering links life sciences to such disciplines as engineering, physics and mathematics. It involves the application of engineering concepts and technology to advance the understanding of biological systems and develop medical instruments, materials, therapeutic devices and artificial organs.

Toi said the delegation found that the greatest need in Vietnam is to provide training to graduate students and researchers and then “establish an infrastructure to give those people opportunities and working environments to develop their skills and to train others.”

Toi arranged the itinerary that included meetings at Ho Chi Minh University of Technology, Hanoi University of Technology and Can Tho University as well as visits to key laboratories and local industries. He included a half-day of sightseeing in each of the three cities. “It’s important to see the daily life to have a more complete picture of the work you are doing. It was too short, but [the visitors] got a feeling for the people and the country,” he said.

Because biomedical engineering has numerous health and medical applications, the delegation was interested in people with disabilities, including many who had suffered from the long war that took place with the French and later the United States. Land mines have left many people without limbs, while chemical warfare, Toi said, has resulted in birth defects and genetic diseases.

Fascinating and invigorating
One participant, Dudley Childress, a professor of rehabilitation engineering at Northwestern University, wrote a poem during the visit. He wrote of walking with Min Phuong, a host from Hanoi University of Technology who has an incurable eye disease that leads to blindness: “In Hanoi, Phuong holds my arm. I help her see obstacles, but really she guides me. We lean on one another. Americans and Vietnamese find each other in Hanoi on a mission, all disabled, we rehabilitate each other.”

In addition to Toi, another participant from Tufts was David Kaplan, professor and chair of biomedical engineering. Assisting the delegation was Clarissa Ceruti, an associate director of the Tufts Bioengineering Center.

Kaplan said he found the country “fascinating and invigorating in many ways, mainly because of the people and their attitude about the future. There was a vibrancy about all that, not to mention the scenic beauty in parts of the country. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and depressing because of the sheer density of people and some of the poverty and some of the living situations.”

For Toi, it is important to make efforts to bring his two countries together.

“I am Vietnamese and American,” he said. “I love both countries. I was born in Vietnam and grew up during the war, and I experienced the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Now I do not want to think about the war but about how to approach the two countries and the two peoples, Americans and Vietnamese, so they can work together and understand each other and do good things together.”

The group hopes to establish student and faculty exchange programs as well as workshops and collaborative research programs. Toi is also working with the Vietnam Education Foundation, which is funded by the U.S. government and supports joint activities in science, technology, mathematics and medicine between Vietnam and the United States.

The delegation included faculty from Tufts, Northwestern University, George Washington University, MIT, the University of Wisconsin and a researcher from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Bruce L. Ehrenberg, associate professor of neurology at Tufts School of Medicine, also went on the trip as an observer.