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Physics of the Heart

Minh Truong: Minh Truong Fontbonne University Tableaux

Instructor says helping others is the 'very best thing'

From the September 2009 edition of Tableaux.

Imagine leaving everything you know behind you. Imagine risking your life in order to secure your future. Imagine starting over in a new world.

For Dr. Minh Truong, these scenarios were at one time a very vivid reality. Truong, an assistant professor in Fontbonne University's biological and physical sciences department, spent the earliest years of his life in Saigon, Vietnam. But in 1984, his family escaped the communist country in a small boat built by his father, an engineer. Truong, then 8, and his parents and sister, were plucked from the middle of the ocean a few days later by a support ship near an oil-drilling platform. They have since made their home in the United States.

Truong, now 34, resides in the Ferguson area with his wife, Amanda, a Fontbonne mathematics and computer science instructor, and their two children. In 2006, he received his doctorate in theoretical particle physics in tandem from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the University of Missouri-Rolla. He can often be seen walking through the halls of Fontbonne, clean-cut, well-dressed, reserved but friendly. On a typical day, he teaches physical science and engineering physics; in his free time, he researches theoretical physics. This past winter, it was Truong's research outside of class in the area of high energy physics, or supersymmetry, that lead him to an international conference in his native country of Vietnam.

"This was something I wanted to do as part of my professional development," he said. "I didn't have any expectations. I just wanted to meet people, especially other scientists."

And they were eager to meet Truong as well. He was even invited back to Hanoi University and Ho Chi Minh University as a visiting professor during the 2009-2010 winter break.

"They seemed happy I was there. Physicists in Vietnam feel isolated - because of communism, everything is censored," Truong explained.

He remembers the Vietnam of his childhood as a much smaller and slower country. Today, he said, its intensity is almost overwhelming. Chaotic traffic fills the streets, and cities overflow with noise and movement. "Initially, it felt very foreign to me," he said. "After a week, though, I felt more at home. But I am glad to be back in the States."

Truong chose to visit Vietnam for professional reasons, but he also wanted to give back to the country in which he was born. He held a fundraiser here before he left, gathering toys and school supplies that he could take to the Dieu Giac orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City. Following the 10-day conference in Hanoi, he spent time teaching, volunteering and visiting with disadvantaged children. According to Truong, many of those he met were seriously ill with diseases thought to be caused by Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.

"The experience was profound," he said. "You wouldn't know it until you get there - the level of poverty, and at the same time, how hard people work. It makes you realize you take everything for granted."

Discipline and hard work have always been important values for Truong, and he stresses them in the classroom. "It seems to me that the value of education remains the most important priority in an average Vietnamese household," he noted. He strives to instill this priority in his students through unique learning opportunities.

"Dr. Truong's energy and excitement seem to inspire students," said Dr. Elizabeth Rayhel, associate professor and chair of Fontbonne's biological and physical sciences department. "Through his star-gazing sessions and trips to Reis Biological center, he has really given students so many hands-on opportunities to learn physics."

Clearly, energy, passion and discipline all contribute to Truong's success - in the classroom and beyond. But one could say it's his compassion that makes him a role model for the Fontbonne community.

"I would encourage others to do more traveling, to see the world, and broaden their horizons," he said. "Do whatever you can to help. To help someone else - that's the very best thing."

Learn more about biological and physical sciences at Fontbonne.

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