Professor Tran Thanh Van and Professor Le Kim Ngoc are a very busy couple.

But even by their hectic standards, last month was crammed as they flew back and forth between France and Vietnam for the 14th “Meeting Vietnam” (Rencontres du Vietnam) event, which was held on May 9 and 10 in Quy Nhon Town on Vietnam’s central coast.

And whenever they are in Vietnam, Van and Ngoc have to receive never-ending calls from former students and groups of Vietnamese researchers who want to set up meetings to exchange notes on work and seek professional advice.

For a short day they were in Hanoi last month, the couple received guests from morning and although it was way past lunch time, they were still willing to stay available for more meetings.

And at every “Meeting Vietnam” event, the two grey haired scientists are a ubiquitous presence, busy with every single detail, from arranging accommodation, food and even the souvenir gifts for the guests.

Looking at how energetic and lively the couple are, especially when speak about science, it is difficult to believe that they are 84 years old.

They are both considered master researchers – Van, of theoretical physics and Ngoc, of biology.

Outstanding scientists

A long 65 years ago, 19-year-old Tran Thanh Van left his home in Quang Binh Province in central Vietnam to study in France.

His initial intention after graduating from high school was to become an engineer, but a meeting with professor Maurice Lévy, one of the founding fathers of atomic physics in France, influenced him to switch.

Vietnamese French physicist Tran Thanh Van speaks at the 14th Meeting Vietnam held May 9-10 in Quy Nhon City, central Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

Vietnamese French physicist Tran Thanh Van speaks at the 14th Meeting Vietnam held May 9-10 in Quy Nhon, central Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

At the age of 27, he successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis on basic particle physics, pointing out that the proton was not the smallest particle. Scientists later said that it was the quark.

In 1958, Van started working at the French National Center for Scientific Research and received the Legion of Honor, or Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits, in 1999.

A graduate of Sorbonne University, Le Kim Ngoc was the first scientist in the world who introduced the “thin cell layer” concept in the famous Nature journal in 1973 under the name Kiem Tran Thanh Van.

The concept marked a crucial step in the evolution of biotechnology.

Another one of her striking works was the discovery of flowering process rule in the 70s, which was referred to by French newspapers and magazines as “a revolution in plant study.”

Back then, Ngoc caught the imagination of the international science community with the image of a Vietnamese woman with long black hair, wearing an ao dai and standing by a microscope.

The period when Ngoc and Van achieved international fame was also when a brutal war raged in Vietnam, consigning millions, including children, to poverty, hunger and homelessness.

The couple established the “Aide à l’Enfance du Vietnam” (Vietnam Childhood Assistance) association with the aim of building a shelter for children in difficulties.

To raise funds for the project, the couple spent cold nights standing in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, selling Christmas and New Year cards.

She always reaches to the most miserable people with her big heart and kind soul, said François Hollande, former French president, as he awarded Ngoc with the Legion of Honor in 2016.

Her life is evidence for what people always say: Money and titles can easily disappear, only love and kindness can stay forever, he said.

American physicist Sheldon Lee Glashow, Nobel Prize winner in 1979, had this to say of Ngoc: “That is the most wonderful Asian woman I’ve ever met.”

Professor Le Kim Ngoc poses for photo with the then president of France Francois Hollande and Professor Tran Thanh Van after receiving the Legion of Honour in Paris in 2016. Photo by VnExpress

Professor Le Kim Ngoc poses for photo with the then president of France Francois Hollande and Professor Tran Thanh Van after receiving the Legion of Honour in Paris in 2016. Photo by VnExpress

‘Meeting Vietnam’

Their success and recognition abroad have only intensified the love that Van and his wife have for their homeland.

Every year, they return to Vietnam three to five times to contribute to educational and scientific projects, and to organize the “Meeting Vietnam” program in particular.

Through this program they dedicate time and effort to bring leading scientists from around the world together to their native country.

“We have returned to Vietnam three times so far this year. There was a time we stayed for three months. And from now until the end of this year, we have to go back a few more times because there is a lot of work still left unfinished.”

Since the 1970s, Van had nurtured the idea of creating a forum where Vietnamese physicists in Vietnam could meet and exchange ideas and experiences with their international peers.

But it was only in 1993 that this dream was realized, with the first “Meeting Vietnam” held in Hanoi. In 2000, Van decided to move the event to Quy Nhon, which he thought was not so crowded and busy as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Van and Ngoc also worked hard to establish the International Center for Interdisciplinary Science and Education in the central coastal city to function as a meeting place for Vietnamese and international scientists.

Vietnamese French scientist Le Kim Ngoc speaks at the 14th Meeting Vietnam held May 9-10 in Quy Nhon City in central Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

Vietnamese French scientist Le Kim Ngoc speaks at the 14th “Meeting Vietnam” held May 9-10 in Quy Nhon City in central Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh

Over the 14 editions of “Meeting Vietnam,” thousands of top scientists, including Nobel laureates, have visited Quy Nhon.

Thanks to the couple, international courses have also been organized annually since 1994 to provide in-depth training to Vietnamese and Asian students and researchers.

And through “Meeting Vietnam,” they’ve also granted the Vallet scholarships every year to poor students and those who’ve performed well in their studies.

“I want to do things that others have not done. Thanks to my relationship with other scientists around the world and those in Vietnam, I want to help Vietnamese youth access new knowledge in the world,” Van said.

Trust the young

Van is worried that many Vietnamese scientists who study abroad do not return to Vietnam.

He said Vietnam should have more belief in young people and create more opportunities for them to thrive. Vietnam should also change the mindset that young people cannot do a job as well as the elders.

“Youth who study abroad are usually energetic and devoting. We just need to give them their own space to develop and do research. If Vietnam does not have particular policies for such talents, it would be difficult to keep them around. And this is not just true of those who study abroad, also those who are in Vietnam,” he said.

“I believe that all Vietnamese scientists want to go back to their homeland, because it is a fact that living abroad is not simple at all. They have to deal with many different types of pressures in work and in life,” said the physicist.

He stressed that the future of Vietnam’s science does not lie in the hands of the elders but the younger generation. Vietnam should act so that young people can live and work with their passion for science, including ensuring a stable source of income for them so that they do not have to worry too much about their daily life.

“Scientists do not desire a luxurious lifestyle, because they can find happiness in doing research and inspiring others with their passion for science,” he said.

“We do not seek fame for what we did. All we’ve ever wanted is a bright future for Vietnamese youth,” Ngoc told VnExpress.

“A country needs a strong foundation of education and science to develop. Put trust in the young generation and they will return to their home, where they have a family, to devote themselves and become helpful, responsible persons in their country,” Van said.

He continued: “As long as I’m still healthy enough, I want to make contributions to my home country.

“I love Vietnam, I love science. That kind of love is something I cannot explain.”

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