One World, One Lab: science meets culture in Vietnam

I want to learn what makes scientists tick. And what is important in their lives. I found some answers at the Agricultural Genetics Institute, in Hanoi, Vietnam. This is the first of a documentary series, called One World One Lab, featuring scientists from eight different countries around the world. This video is a window into the research world, which is not about complex research data. Instead, it is about culture, street life, religion and all the strange and tasty foods.

What emerges from this documentary is a flavour of the working conditions of scientists in Vietnam. The Hanoi Agricultural Genetics Institute (AGI), for instance, is a new seven storey research hub. Its labs appear not to be too different from the lab I was used to in Germany. By contrast, their annual budget is incredibly different. “The budget I have per year to pay ten people plus lab equipment is around one billion Vietnam Dong [€37.000]),” says Khut Huu Trung, head of the department for genetic engineering at the AGI.

With such a budget, high salaries are practically impossible. Even though, it is possible to get a permanent postdoc position in Vietnam, salaries are limited. The documentary tells the story of Pham Thanh Van, who just came back from Japan after doing a PhD in agricultural and horticultural science. “I have some offers and the salary is around $200 [€150] per month,” she says. Living costs are lower than in Europe. For example, a lunch costs between €1.5 and €3, and a double room in a hotel costs €13. But still, this kind of salary is not enough. “For me and my baby I need at least $400 [€300],” she explains. Not to mention, that there is no financial government support for families and no free kinder garden.

The film also peers into the motivation of some of the scientists to work in research. When asked about the reason for his personal fascination for science, Le Huy Ham, who is the director general of the Institute, said that “the biggest award for a scientist is to see the result of you work on farmers’ fields, poor farmers.” In other words: the happiness of farmers is the happiness of agricultural scientists. Indeed, one of the research fields in the Institute is plant genetics. There, scientists focus on developing transgenic soy beans, which are more resistant against drought stress and also have an increased tolerance against insects.

In the course of realising this movie, I also covered how science fits in the wider context of the very interesting culture of the country. I tested various typical foods, such as dog and duck tongue. I learned about the country’s religious beliefs. And I dared to throw myself on a motorbike into the insane traffic of Hanoi. I also heard the perspective of a French scientist, doing an international volunteer year in the country, on Vietnamese culture. He said that he is sometimes struggling with the organisation; or lack of thereof. But at the same time he enjoys the community spirit. “At work, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s like being in a big family, at work,” he says.

In the end I heard different opinions about the future for science in Vietnam. But, at least, one fact connects Europe strongly to the progress of science there. “I’m sure we are doing better and better each day, because many Vietnamese scientists are being trained in Australia, America and Europe. Many of them are coming back to Vietnam and with these trained forces, I’m sure we’re able to catch up to international standard soon,” notes Vu Anh Nguyen, a researcher in the plant genomics and biotechnology department of AGI.

This is only a flavour of what you will discover in this documentary. For more, just watch the movie below and learn more about Vietnam and its researchers, be prepared to discover facts that you would never have expected.

Christian Stern

Founder OneWorldOneLab.net

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by M M

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