In conversation with Dr. Tich-Lam Nguyen
Hi Tich-Lam- thanks for chatting with us!
What drew you into the world of STEM?
I grew up in Vietnam and completed my primary school there. Growing up in low socioeconomic areas, I didn’t have much exposure to science at school. My dad was one of the millions of boat people who escaped Vietnam in the early 80s; I grew up not knowing my dad or science until I came to Australia.
It was in year 9 that I experienced my first fascination with Science. For one of our science experiments, we picked flowers from the schoolyard and used a distillation set-up to extract the essential oil from the petals to make perfume. That was when it clicked for me that Science can transform simple things into useful products and technologies that we normally take for granted. So for my senior years, I took the typical science subjects and later completed a Bachelor of Applied Science, Applied Chemistry at RMIT. It was through a summer research project at the ANU in the third year that I found out I wanted to pursue research as a career.
You are currently the Chief Operating Officer at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies. Take us on a tour of what a day in this role looks like!
In this role, I'm responsible for the Centre’s financial and operational effectiveness, mainly designing and implementing business operations, monitoring budget and preparing financial and operational performance reports. I also work closely with the FLEET Executive Committee to establish policies and programs that promote the Centre’s vision and culture.
No two days are the same and that’s one of my favourite things about this role. It’s always versatile and never boring! Today, for example, was a day for document reviews and meetings with the Centre business team, the executive committee and three meetings with business development, research contracts, and finance staff at three different universities.
January and February are our reporting periods, it’s probably the busiest time for the whole operations team but also an exciting time because we get to reflect on all the cool stuff we did in the previous year. It’s really great to realise how much we have achieved collectively as a national research collaboration and how much our research students and early career researchers have grown in the process.
You are currently working outside academia, what prompted this choice and what has been your experience with this transition?
My academic career started at the NanoScience Laboratory at the University of Melbourne. I was employed as a postdoc and unofficially the lab manager. Apart from my own research, I also managed the lab, supervised students, and managed the group’s outreach activities.
While I was enjoying my job as a postdoc, it was always looming overhead that there was huge uncertainty in whether I will be able to find another postdoc position. I was always looking to learn about alternative career paths and came across the opportunity from the Business and Economics Faculty that offered 10 scholarships to Melbourne University staff. I received the scholarship to do the Master of Management with the Melbourne Business School. I was working full time at level B academic and taking night classes so it took me four years to finish the course.
I knew that I wanted to stay connected to Science and make the most of my management training but I didn’t actually know what sort of role would suit me. I talked to many different people in roles that utilise both science, research and business skills. Through a former colleague, I came to know about the Centre Manager role for the Monash Centre for Atomically Thin Materials. The PD wanted someone with both a Science and a business qualification! The opportunity was exactly what I was looking for. The two years in this role has also built up the experience I needed in my current role as COO.
Who are some of your role models?
I have learnt a little bit from many women whom I’ve had the opportunity to work with and know of. I learnt resilience and the value of education from my mum. She couldn’t complete high school due to the war and had always encouraged us to never waste an opportunity to learn.
Within the STEM world, I really admire Marguerite Evans-Galea and Michelle Gallaher who founded the Women in STEMM Australia network. Together they’ve championed so many positive changes and are still doing amazing things for STEMM.
Angela Merkel and Jacinta Ardern are also my role models although I’ve never had the privilege to meet them. Angela Merkel has truly shown what a difference a leader with STEM backgrounds can make. She’s positioned Germany as a leader in energy reform and her influence has spread even outside of the EU. Jacinta Ardern showed how empathy, kindness and a forward focus can lead a country through times of crisis.
Could you share 3 highly recommended reads or podcasts that you think would be of interest to colleagues in the STEM Women network?
I recently read Dare to Lead by Brene Brown and Grit by Angela Duckworth which I highly recommend. I enjoy research-based findings and insights and both contain practical guidelines for readers. I can really relate to Grit because I don’t see myself having any particular talents but it’s really personal passion and resilience that have taken me to where I am today.
I also recommend the A Podcast of One’s Own with Julia Gillard. It’s really inspirational to hear from strong women from all walks of life who have overcome adversity and shown courage through those situations.
What would be your advice to women and girls considering a career in STEM?
I’ve been told many times at various workshops that we need to learn how to say no - as women, we tend to say yes more often than we should. However, in my case, I’ve actually gained many additional skills through extracurricular activities and volunteer work. For example, it was through my involvement in the students association when I was a PhD student that I picked up event organisation abilities, interpersonal, teamwork and negotiation skills. I’m using all of these skills in my current role. So I think the main thing is you need to say yes to things that you enjoy doing and allow you to get the skills that you want to gain.
We’re currently in an environment that’s very fast-moving with lots of new emerging technologies that change the way we work… If you’re currently a student, your future job may not exist yet so focus on transferable skills that can be applied in different fields and be open to new opportunities. I think STEM students have an advantage in that they’re trained in skills that are critical across different industries, for example critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and collaboration.
We spend at least a third of our time every day working, so both our mental health and the industry benefit when we enjoy our work. The Japanese Ikigai concept really resonates with me. If we follow our passion and choose to do what we love, what we’re good at and at the same time make a contribution to society and get paid for it, it won’t really feel like work!
For the women and girls who are considering a career in STEM, I think it shows you already have at least three if not all of the four Ikigai components. It’s such an exciting time for women overall when there are so many new initiatives, programs and support networks such as STEM Women and IMNIS to help you succeed in careers both within and outside of academia. At the same time, there are so many opportunities for us to help create change for a better, more equitable STEM future!
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