Technical Staff Member
What do you do as an astronomer?
There are two kinds of astronomers. There are observers and there are theorists. The theorists work with theory, they don't go out [in the field] and get the data. They will make predictions and then they have to see if the data confirms their predictions or not. The observers usually like telescopes and they go out and get the data. Both types of astronomers analyze data and then publish their results. I was an observer so I would use a telescope to get data.
Did you always like looking at the stars?
Yes, but not any more than the average person. As a child, I'd just look up and see the pretty stars but nothing more than that. I didn't have a telescope or anything. I stumbled upon astronomy by accident. I visited the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and saw the pictures from Voyager! That was the first time I realized, "Wow, there are people who go and study these things and do this for a living." So that's how I got interested.
Where did you grow up and what did you like to do as a child?
I grew up in South Vietnam. I did the usual kid stuff. You know, just playing with the kids in the neighborhood, reading, nothing very special. I liked school so I liked homework. Doing homework was sort of fun.
I remember my father teaching us French and I liked that too. Vietnam was a French colony for a long time, so my father spoke French. He thought it would be good for the kids to know and he wanted to teach us. It was good to know another language. He did send me to a French school so I got it at school and at home. I liked all those lessons.
How many children are in your family? Were you all born in Vietnam?
I have two brothers and one sister. The two brothers are younger and my sister is older. We were all born in South Vietnam.
Why did you leave South Vietnam? How old were you at the time?
The war ended and the country collapsed. I was almost 12 and my dad had been working as an interpreter for the American army. He would act as a go-between between the American soldiers and the Vietnamese. Since he was involved with the army he would have been in big trouble if we couldn't get out. The whole family would have been in trouble. During the last days of the war, everybody was fleeing. He knew that we had to go. I think at one point he just came home and said, "We have to go to the airport." We didn't have a way out but we just had to go there to be nearby. We sat at the airport for days while he was running around looking up contacts trying to find a way out. Eventually he ran into an old contact who knew there was a plane taking off. It was a cargo plane but at that point everybody was being evacuated.
We just sat out on the grass during the day. At nighttime we'd go somewhere and spend the night. We couldn't go home because when we left, we tried to keep it sort of quiet in case we hadn't succeeded. Then we could have been reported as trying to escape. Luckily after a few days we were able to get out.
What was it like leaving your home behind?
Sort of sad but at the same time it was exciting. For kids at that age, we didn't know about the danger. Our parents didn't tell us about it; it was just that we had to go. It was sort of sad leaving friends and relatives behind but we were pretty excited. Each kid had a little bag and, I think, maybe a change of clothes. My favorite thing at the time was a box of colored pencils. I sneaked that along and didn't tell my mom about it, because that was a bit frivolous. But that was my favorite thing.
How long did you have to live in refugee camps? Was it scary for you? Was your family able to stay together?
It was on the order of a month or a month and a half or so. Life in the refugee camp was interesting. It was peculiar. You lived in tents and there was not much to do but just wait. It was never scary in the camp. It felt very safe, but living in the camp was sort of weird because there was nothing to do. You just stayed in these tents. There was no school, which was a bit peculiar. Most people were waiting for some way to leave the camp to get out, but we couldn't all be released into society because most of these people didn't speak English and they didn't have jobs.
My aunt in Kentucky, who had married an American GI, heard about us arriving in the States so they drove out to see us. There was a program that helped sponsors like my aunt to support refugees -- you know, food stamps or whatever. They made a decision to take us back with them to Kentucky. We were quite lucky, we were able to stay together. We heard a lot about families being split up.
Was it difficult to learn English and make friends? Did you have many friends and classmates who were also from Vietnam?
English is a pretty easy language to learn and, since I knew French already, it was a very easy jump. We were certainly the first foreigners in that little town in Kentucky. Everybody else was from Kentucky. We were the only foreign kids.
What were your favorite subjects in school? Which subjects prepared you most for your career?
I was good at school. What did I like? Math was fun and I was good at writing. So math and writing were probably my favorites. Being good in math was useful. It is very useful if you want to go into science.
If you work in the lab you don't need to be superdooper in math. If you are a theorist then you should be more concerned with it. So it depends what you do. If you are a person who works out in the field such as a geologist, or an experimental biologist, it's not so crucial. I guess the message is, even if you are not fantastic in math, you can still be a scientist.
Which subjects were the most difficult for you? How does the American school system compare with school in Vietnam?
There weren't any difficult ones. It was all easy. The Vietnamese school system was based on the French school system, which was demanding. A lot of it was rote memory. A French school would give you much more work! Starting from Kindergarten there's homework -- immediately. So I was used to more work. The American school system was quite easy. The American school system is based on more basic understanding rather than memorization, which I think is better.
What have been your biggest accomplishments so far in life?
I guess in terms of my career it would be the discovery of the Kuiper Belt with my colleague Dave Jewitt. I'm pretty proud of it because we stuck with it for a long time -- five years! Everybody kept saying, "When are you guys going to quit. It's hopeless. You'll never find it. It doesn't exist." So in terms of scientific accomplishment, that discovery has been my biggest accomplishment. I've had a pretty exciting life. I've traveled all over the world. I've been very lucky, I think. A lot of times it was landing in the right place at the right time. Our family came as refugees. We didn't have many resources. But somehow I managed to do a lot of things. I didn't have a passport but I still managed to travel.
I like adventures. Like going to Nepal, I didn't have any money but I met this lady who just landed a job with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and she was going up to Nepal to do some work and she said, "Oh if you find yourself in the neighborhood, stop by. You could stay with me." I said, "OK!" and I tried to find the money to go. I thought, "Well, it doesn't cost much to live there -- just come up with the airfare and then off you go." Once I got there I looked for volunteer jobs and found Save the Children. And they said, "OK, you want to teach for us? We'll take you out to our village and you can stay there and you can teach." So fine, great! I did that too.
I was out in the village teaching for about a month and then the opportunity came up that Tibet opened the border between Nepal and Tibet. You just have to go because it doesn't happen very often. The Peace Corps volunteers are great people. You hear about them and they say, "Oh, we're going to..." So you say, "Well, can I come along?" And they say, "Sure!" I wasn't actually in the Peace Corps. I just joined them when they went. I ended up spending the whole summer in Nepal and Tibet.
So I was just lucky... just lucky a lot. And then landing in astronomy just from a visit to JPL! I didn't know that people could study planetary science as a career. So I found that out. It's sort of cool. So I ended up doing that. I was lucky for a lot of my life.
I think perseverance gets you pretty far. Being lucky and having some perseverance will get you a long, long way. I managed to have a pretty exciting life. I have traveled a lot, which I really like, and I managed to do some good things in astronomy.
What does your family think of your work? How do they react to your discoveries?
My parents don't know any science at all -- they were not educated. So they are proud of the fact I had a doctorate. They've seen I've achieved some sort of name for myself for they see me in the magazines, the newspapers, and sometimes on TV. So they think it must be good. They don't understand anything about what I do but they think, "well, she must have done something good."
What countries have you visited or lived in? What do you like best about the different places you have lived?
I've traveled a lot. I've been to Nepal and Tibet. I've traveled all over Europe. I lived in Berlin for a while, before the wall fell. Without a passport too! Being a refugee, I didn't have a passport. You just deal with whatever problems come along. The East Germans certainly were not happy about it. We would have school trips to cross over from West Berlin to East Berlin -- we did that pretty often. For most people it's not a big problem. But for me it was a big problem! I was going to Stanford at the time. It was an overseas program. It was completely run by Stanford with Stanford professors. The school people would learn to put me last in the line because everything halted when they came to my papers! Anyway, you deal with it. I mean, what was I going to do? Go home? No.
What do you like best about the different places you have lived in?
I like remote and out of the way places, exotic places where life is a bit more difficult and you have to think with your wit and you have to live on the bare minimum, the bare necessities of life. It's nice to do that once in a while just to remind yourself you need very little to live. You need a roof, some food and water but that's about it. And you meet nice people, but in terms of money, the nicest people were not the richest people but they were really hospitable. They would do anything for you even if they didn't know who you were. If you were in trouble people would help you out.
Where did you meet your husband?
My husband, Ronnie, is also an astronomer (a stellar astronomer). We met at a university in Holland called Leiden University, which is a pretty famous university. I think they have the oldest astronomy department in Europe.
What were you doing in Holland?
The Dutch have a good reputation in astronomy. They do very good work. Leiden had an opening for a professor. So I applied and I got the job. I taught my classes in English. My Dutch was too slow and too primitive to be able to give a lecture, but the kids could ask me questions in Dutch and I would answer back in English. Dutch astronomers have to be able to speak English if they are going to go to meetings and give talks and write papers. English is the international language for astronomers. It was a great arrangement. Both sides were happy.
What are your favorite outdoor activities?
I like running a lot, and cycling and swimming. It would be fun to do a triathlon one day.
What are you doing now?
Now I am doing instrumentation at a place called Lincoln Labs. It's a research center, a part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I'm not going observing anymore, but I'd like to go back to astronomy eventually. I'm a technical staff member at the Lab and I work on satellite instruments. I left academia. I'm no longer a professor. The reason I did that was I wanted to come back to the States and I didn't want to get back into the rat race of academia. Hard work is okay, but academia is very restrictive. As an observer, you need travel money. Without grants you can't go observing. I would say that the best time was as a graduate student. I didn't have any responsibilities. I didn't have to worry about grant money. I just did the work, and it was fun. I didn't have to worry about climbing the career ladder. I just went out observing, getting the data, doing my work and I was discovering things. That was the best. As a professor, I had a permanent job, which was good, and a lot of people must have thought I was crazy to quit, but I'm happy.
Do you have any hobbies?
I like the outdoors. I like music. I learned to play the cello after graduate school. Once I became a post-doc I had the money to do it. I didn't learn before because my family was too poor for that kind of stuff. Now I play the cello. Reading is always fun. I like non-fiction, things that teach you new stuff. There's a lot of very interesting things in the world. I don't get to travel so much anymore, but hopefully I'll get to do that again.
Do you ever stop trying to learn new things?
Oh, of course not! It's much more fun that way.
Do you think your gift of languages has helped you in any way?
It helps a lot. It got me into good universities. Soon after I arrived in the United States, my English was good enough that eventually I was able to skip a grade. Then I got into Stanford. Being good at languages is always useful especially when you travel. I think it's always easier to learn languages as a child. I don't know of any kid who has trouble learning languages. When you are an adult you can still learn languages, but how well you learn depends how good you are with languages. Some people have a bigger facility for picking up languages than others.
What advice do you have for students around the world?
Perseverance gets you a long, long way. Being brilliant doesn't hurt. Being brilliant is always useful, but not that many of us are brilliant. I think if you are interested in something you just can't help but think about it, and eventually you're going to get a good idea. For some people good ideas come every day. For some people it comes every year. You wait and you think about it. When you get a good idea, you can choose if you're going to act on it or not. If you persevere, you'll get somewhere.
It was my collaborator, Dave Jewitt, who pointed out to me, "You know people like to use the word 'brilliant'. People like to hero worship and say 'oh, this astronomer is brilliant.'" Dave said, "Nah, he's just interested in what he does. That's all there is." If you're interested in something, you care about it, think a lot about it, and then you're going to have good ideas. If you have some perseverance and you stick to your ideas, you can make something of them. If you're interested in something you're already halfway there.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
"Genius is one
percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."
- 21 March 2003
21 March 2003
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