"Passion - The Mother of Invention", says Vietnamese scientist
No half measures. That’s the one thing that has stood out about Vu Ngoc Tam since he was a kid.
When he developed a liking for badminton, he found a coach to teach him how play better. He wanted to sing, and then was trained by a vocal coach. As a youth, he dabbled in many things and he gave each of these attempts his all.
Vu Ngoc Tam. — Photos Courtesy of Vu Ngoc Tam
But the one area where he shone was information technology, and he made it habit to win award after award through his high school years.
In 2006, Tam graduated from and worked for one year at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology and embarked on a PhD in Computer Science at the Rutgers University in the US.
In 2013, Tam founded the Mobile and Networked Systems (MNS) lab at the University of Colorado, where his team focused on inventions and research in healthcare. They built an intelligent system to improve and change the way people care for health, especially children.
His work has been recognised with many prestigious awards including the Alfred Sloan Award, NSF CAREER award, two Google Faculty Awards, ten best paper awards, best paper nominations, and research highlights in flagship venues.
He is also actively pushing his research outcomes into practice through technology transfer. Towards this, he has filed 25 patents and attracted institutional investment for two start-ups that he co-founded Earable Inc. and Now Vitals Inc.
His research also touches on securing critical systems and providing seamless network connectivity for smart and connected cities.
His first notable project was to "locate a phone in a car" in response to the US government calling for initiatives to reduce traffic accidents caused by the use of phones while driving.
The “Acoustic Localisation of Mobile Phones in Car for Driver Safety Applications” project sought to improve driver safety by appropriately allowing or denying calls to the driver's mobile phone based on the location of the phone inside the car. The novelty of the technology is the ability to teach the phone to learn its own location inside the car to decide if it is being used by a driver or by a passenger.
It involved using a mobile phone’s microphones to calibrate its location within a car to determine if a phone was held by the driver or the passenger and accordingly enforce call policies.
The project won a best paper award at Mobi Com 2011, the world's leading mobile technology conference, kicking off a spree of similar recognitions that came in throughout his career. He went on to win two more Mobi Com awards.
In 2014, he won the "Google Faculty Research Award" for inventing a security ring that can store almost unlimited passwords.
An ear for sound health
In 2019, his company Earable Inc., which was founded to commercialize a series of new inventions that his lab developed, won a VNĐ10 billion (US$430,848) grant from Vingroup’s VinTech Fund. This one aimed to bring "the best technology of Vietnamese people to Viet Nam".
Vu Ngoc Tam (first, left) and two founding members of Earable.AI, Prof. Sangtae Ha and Prof. Robin Deterding.
Earable’s founding mission is to enhance human’s cognitive functions from their ears. The company makes smart earphones that can capture various vital signals and biological signals from user’s ear and use that to improve health condition or user’s well-being.
As the first application, Earable’s smart earphone is expected to help tracking and improving the quality of sleep, thereby providing the necessary treatment regimens for some sleep disorders and improving reduced concentration.
At its core, Earable is an earbud packed with biosensors for convenient health quantification, Tam said.
“It a wireless smart headset that tracks brain waves, facial muscles, and eye movements in real time, thereby helping monitor and improve the quality of sleep,” Tam said.
“Sleep accounts for about a third of the total lifetime of each person. In other words, sleep is very important. But statistically, up to 2.1 billion people around the world (about 27 per cent) have sleep problems. Several solutions have been proposed for this problem, but these have come with barriers. They have been too expensive or too annoying for users. That is why we have spent a lot of time, the last five years, researching Earable,” he said.
|The smart earphone Earable is expected to help improve the quality of sleep, thereby providing the necessary treatment regimens for some sleep disorders and improving reduced concentration.|
With a team of experts in technology, health, product development and manufacturing, the Earable prototype has been clinically tested in a US hospital with an accuracy of about 95 per cent compared to the gold-standard equipment being used in hospitals today, while the price is up to 200 times cheaper.
However, he said the device carries great potential for delivering a healthier, more active and more productive life to people not only in terms of sleep improvement, but also in other areas such as detecting the onset of autism, enhancing meditation, suppressing epilepsy, and assessing a child’s interests.
“Earable also has the potential to help users control hearing aids, prevent distraction and drowsiness among drivers and reduce traffic accidents, among other applications” he said.
As the father of earable technology, Tam was granted the 2020 Sloan Research Fellowships in recognition of his scientific research in wearable and wireless technology, focusing on the invention of devices that help aid and improve the quality of human health and life.
Awarded annually since 1955, the prestigious 2020 Sloan Research Fellowships were granted to 126 outstanding young researchers working in the US and Canada, in recognition of their distinguished performance and unique potential to make substantial contributions in eight scientific and technical fields, including chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics.
Tam and his team expect to have the minimum viable product (MVP) for Earable this September, mass produce it and introduce it to the market by Christmas 2021.
Searching for researchers
As a professor and a scientist, Tam is passionate about creating new knowledge that has potentail to create positive impact to the society.
“But for inventing cutting-edge technology through research and development, we need a combination of three elements: human resources, financial resources, and strong research environment,” Tam said.
He said funding for science and technology research in Vietnam has been much improved over the last decade but still is very limited, making it challenging for most researchers to aim high.
Through his involvement and participation with major US funds like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Health (NIH), he found that they invest in scientific research with a vision for 20-30 years and allocate large sums for the purpose. The NIH pours up to $38 billion and NSF about $8 billion into scientific and technological research.
“They are not only interested in the results of each project, but paid special attention to how many people in the hi-tech area will benefit from the project. This is especially important because any organisation’s core value is its people. The results are temporary, the research will eventually become outdated and a product will become old, the one thing that remains fresh is human resources – the main factor for science to develop,” he said.
Fostering Vietnamese intellectuals
|Vu Ngoc Tam delivers a keynote speech at the Vietnam Young Leaders Forum 2019.|
As a professor in Oxford University (UK) and University of Colorado (US), Tam has a keen interest in encouraging and supporting Vietnamese students to pursue their passion in science by encouraging them to go abroad for higher education.
“I want to contribute to the making of a new generation of Vietnamese intellectuals who are as intellectually competitive as others from other parts of the world,” he said.
Elaborating on his motivation, he said: “I have been very lucky and owe much of my achievements to my parents who devotedly and willingly created opportunities for me to learn anything I wish. From graduate school, I was fortunate enough to meet with and advised by great mentors in my field who patiently walk me through steps to become an independent scientist”.
Now, he wants to create opportunity for others.
Therefore, “what we invest in is not a few research projects but a focus on enabling talented people to develop. For example, the students that we train and support will become professors and then they will help other students to become professors, and so on. I believe the students that I trained and now became professor already will do the same,” he said.
“That’s also the reason why I only recruit those who wish to become professors and not those who wish to work for tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon or Google after graduating,” he said.
Over the past six years, Tam has managed to attract and raise about US$7.5 million to support the research and development of various mobile and wearable technologies with his students from his lab.
“I want to create opportunities for young Vietnamese people to have a passion for research because this passion will lead young people to go far, sometime, beyond their own imagination. I strongly believe that the next generation of Vietnamese students and future scientists will go a lot further.”
He said his main advice for young people is to pursue all their passions and make many mistakes.
“At the end, everything connects,” he said.
“During my time in college, I tried many things: being a model for a famous Vietnamese brand doing fashion work; being an MC at events; being a singer performing at night bars; and even being football ticket dealer whenever our national team played. All of these give me the confidence I have today, the communication skills I have today but none of them give me the passion to pursue and excel.
“So before you are 25, explore, try everything, try really hard, and give it your best. Everytime you try, if you fail, remember to fail forward – that is be a better you after each time. Then pick yourself up quickly and move forward - but always, give it your best."
“After you fail a lot, you’ll know what you’re passionate about, since you can only be good at what you have a passion for,” Tam said. VNS
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