Among the test tubes, petri dishes and beakers of the University of Queensland’s Institute of Molecular Bioscience in Brisbane, Tam Duong feels right at home.
Yet it’s been almost seven years since the biotechnology graduate research assistant left her home country of Vietnam.
“I really didn’t think I would go overseas to study,” she says, the gentle tap of her black patent leather shoes echoing throughout the austere laboratory.
“I didn’t think there was very much opportunity out there for someone in my field of biotechnology.”
Little did Tam realise that her passion for genetic manipulation and education would take her far beyond the fast-paced city streets of her native Ho Chi Minh City.
After completing her Bachelor of Biotechnology at the prestigious Vietnam National University in the chaotic city, Tam travelled to Korea to complete a Masters degree.
“It’s hard to go straight from a university in Vietnam to studying in Australia or America because the standards of the universities or research institutes in those countries are so much higher,” Tam says, quickening her pace.
Her eagerness to start working in the laboratory is infectious; hopefully the contents of the myriad containers lining the never-ending shelves in the room are not.
But in no time at all Tam’s standing behind her pallid workbench, her movements switching to autopilot almost instantly.
Bottles are pulled off the shelf, gloves from boxes, labels from drawers, and jackets from cupboards, apparently without conscious recognition.
The connection and compatibility between Tam and laboratory work is obvious, and it’s no wonder she received the distinguished UQ Vietnam Scholarship to further her foray into biotechnology study and research overseas.
“I was very lucky to get the UQ Scholarship,” Tam says modestly, snapping on a pair of blue plastic gloves.
The UQ Vietnam Scholarship celebrates 35 years of academic partnership with Vietnam and is awarded to students who continually perform at a high academic standard.
Although only Vietnamese students may apply, the competitiveness of the award makes the application process a nerve-racking experience.
“I encourage my friends to come to UQ to study, or to come to Australia and study but they say that it’s too hard,” Tam says, pausing for the first time as she organises test tubes in a carry tray on her workbench.
The importance of earning a university level degree has increased rapidly in the last 10 years in Vietnam. Yet Tam says that time and time again the number of students vastly exceeds the positions available at the universities.
“The university might raise the threshold for passing very high if there are lots of people applying, and so you need a really good score,” Tam says, somehow managing to pipette a solution into eight test tubes with detailed precision in less than 30 seconds.
Tam graduated in the top three students of her class, but says she didn’t focus all her energies on achieving academic success.
“I just thought that if I did my best that’s okay, and if that wasn’t good enough then that was okay too,” she says.
“I didn’t put any extra pressure on myself.”
Carefully sliding the test tube tray off the workbench and onto a nearby trolley, Tam comments on how the pressure of needing a higher degree in order to earn a higher salary drove many of her classmates to study other degrees.
“With a lower salary you can’t really support yourself,” she says sadly, guiding the trolley towards an ominous-looking refrigerator.
“If you stay in the city you’re paying for rent, for petrol to get to and from work, and basic living items, so you’re not really saving money.”
Coming to a halt in front of the Godfather of refrigerators, Tam begins to unload her fragile cargo with as much care and dedication that a mother gives her newborn child.
As each test tube is placed on its designated shelf, it becomes clear that Tam is more than 110 per cent committed to what she does.
“I never thought I’d be here where I am today,” she says, leaning against the fridge with a look of quiet contemplation across her face.
It’s a touching and inspiring sight; Tam emanates a warmth that seems to fill the laboratory. Everything around her glows with the same sort of happiness and devotion she implements into her work.
“Time has flown by so quickly for me. It’s strange to think of the past like this.”