Women and girls in STEM: Tich-Lam Nguyen

Tich-Lam’s journey took her from post-war Vietnam to COO of a major research centre.

Tich-Lam Nguyen is Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies, or FLEET. She makes sure the centre operates efficiently and effectively so it can achieve its mission – reducing the energy used in electronics to make computing more sustainable.

‘One of the best things about this role is that no 2 days are the same,’ Tich-Lam says. ‘In the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing financial reports and budgets, planning a professional development workshop, working with researchers on the program for our upcoming conference, inducting new members and dealing with other operational issues that came up.’

Many of the STEM skills Tich-Lam used in her research apply just as well to research management, such as:

  • using analytical skills to manage the centre’s budget and resources
  • managing projects and collaborating across different teams and organisations for a common goal
  • analysing and interpreting data to communicate the centre’s work to stakeholders
  • using creative thinking to come up with innovative solutions to complex operational problems.

‘What keeps me motivated is the opportunity to work in a cutting-edge, innovative research program for the good of humanity and with really smart people,’ she says. ‘Working around students also really keeps you young at heart!’

From chemistry class to COO

Tich-Lam grew up in Vietnam. Her dad was one of the millions of refugees who came to Australia in the early 1980s while Tich-Lam stayed behind with her mother. ‘Mum was working as hard as she could so that my sister and I had enough to fill our tummies and clothes on our backs,’ Tich-Lam says. ‘Neither of my parents had the opportunity to finish high school because of the war. They instilled in me a deep appreciation for learning and placed significant emphasis on the value of education. They never interfered with my choice of subjects or career path and were happy as long as I was learning.’

When Tich-Lam was a teenager, the family moved to Australia to reunite with her dad. ‘Year 8 was mostly spent learning English and trying to fit into the new Australian culture and lifestyle,’ she says. ‘I discovered science in year 9 and chose the typical STEM subjects – chemistry, physics and maths. I didn’t choose biology because most of the words were too long and difficult to pronounce!’

Tich-Lam fell in love with chemistry after a high-school experiment to make perfume from flowers. She studied applied chemistry at RMIT, where she discovered what it was like to work in a real research lab. She graduated Uni with first-class honours and received 2 scholarships to do a PhD in nanoscience at RMIT.

In 2001 Tich-Lam received an award from RMIT for her PhD research. ‘This was a special milestone because it gave me confidence in pursuing research as a career,’ she says.

Outside the lab, she was already stretching her managerial muscles as president of the National Vietnamese Students Association (VSA).

‘It was challenging to organise events for hundreds of people with minimal budgets,’ Tich-Lam says. ‘There was a lot of begging for sponsorship, free labour and volunteers. But this is where I picked up negotiation skills, interpersonal skills, teamwork, leadership and organisational abilities – all of which I’m using in my current role in FLEET.’

After her PhD, Tich-Lam began working at the University of Melbourne’s NanoScience Laboratory. As well as doing research and supervising students, she became an unofficial lab manager – rolling out new processes and protocols, handling lab supplies, working on industry research contracts and managing outreach activities such as demonstrations and research expos. She started a Master of Management in 2010, completing it on evenings and weekends while carrying on her academic work.

Photo of Tich-Lam Nguyen standing in front of a lab bench with various pieces of scientific equipment. She is wearing a lab coat, lab goggles and latex gloves.

Tich-Lam at work in the University of Melbourne’s NanoScience Laboratory. Photo credit: NanoScience Laboratory

In 2015 Tich-Lam became a full-time research manager at the Monash Centre for Atomically Thin Materials. Part of the role was running training workshops and forums for students and early career researchers. ‘It was fulfilling to provide them with training opportunities that I did not have access to when I was a student,’ she says. ‘By showcasing different career paths for STEM graduates outside of academia, I wanted to broaden their perspectives and inspire them to consider non-traditional avenues within their field of expertise.’

And although she’s uncertain about her destination once her tenure as COO of FLEET concludes, Tich-Lam is enthusiastic for the array of possibilities that lie ahead in her career.

‘I’ve never been a long-term career planner,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know that my current role existed until about 15 years ago and didn’t even consider it until 8 or 9 years ago. However, what has remained constant for me is staying true to my passion, always choosing what I enjoy doing and never turning down an opportunity to learn. This has helped me broaden my horizons, discover new career possibilities and keep me motivated. As I continue to explore my own capabilities, I am confident that my STEM skills will propel me even further. ’

Learning perseverance

This passion to keep learning and exploring has set Tich-Lam up for a successful career in research management. But her background and identity also benefit her work.

‘While my journey to Australia was not as nearly as traumatic as my dad’s, it was very challenging to try and fit into the foreign life and learn the language as a teenager,’ she says. ‘But through my experience, I learned resilience, perseverance, adaptivity and resourcefulness, which helped build the person that I am today.’

‘I think immigrants bring with them a unique cultural perspective and experience. Their participation enriches the organisation by introducing a broader range of ideas and perspectives, and research has shown that diverse teams make better decisions. Immigrants can often communicate effectively in multiple languages, which not only facilitates collaboration with international partners but also expands the reach of research findings, ensuring their broader impact.’

‘I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have many supporting and motivating teachers and mentors who have been instrumental in shaping my journey throughout school, university and professional life. Their encouragement prompted me to pursue scholarships and supported me through transformative training opportunities. Their guidance has also inspired me to give back, uplift others and foster a spirit of paying it forward.’ 

How to improve diversity in STEM

So how can STEM organisations reap the benefits of a diverse workforce?

‘It starts with respect and kindness,’ Tich-Lam says. ‘Organisations can create a culture of inclusivity by cultivating diversity, equity and respect for all. This can be achieved through training on unconscious bias and increasing access to education, training and mentorship for underrepresented groups. Workplaces can address bias in hiring and promotion by using objective criteria and actively seeking out candidates from underrepresented groups.’

Tich-Lam also has a personal drive to encourage more women of colour in STEM. ‘I went through my career without any role models that look like me,’ she says. ‘There are not many Vietnamese–Australian scientists in my work environment, and the number of women is even fewer. I understand how difficult it is to try and be what you cannot see. So I feel a personal sense of responsibility to lead by example and be a role model for younger women of colour.’

Some of her advice to those women? ‘Don't be discouraged by setbacks. Find a strong network of mentors and allies. Every obstacle is an opportunity to learn and grow. As long as you follow your passion and strengths, and work hard towards your goals, success will find its way to you.’