From a Vietnamese refugee huddled with more than 400 frightened others as a flimsy craft took them across the South China Sea, to a potential Nobel Prize laureate for Chemistry, the journey of Griffith University science graduate Dr San Thang is as astonishing as it is inspiring.
“Sometimes I look back and even I find it all a little difficult to believe,” says Dr Thang. “It is very emotional for me because I relive the sacrifices made and the challenges faced.
“Then I remember where those moments led me, to so many kind and generous people, to precious opportunities and a career I once pondered might no longer have been possible.”
Last week Dr Thang was named as part of an elite cohort of predicted contenders for this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He was one of a team of three CSIRO organic chemists listed by multinational media and information company, Thomson Reuters, in its annual Nobel-class Citation Laureates.
The Chemistry honour eventually went to American scientists Eric Betzig, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Maryland, and William Moerner, of Stanford University; and their German colleague Stefan Hell, of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Gottingen. They were acknowledged for work that allows optical microscopes to study cells in the tiniest molecular detail, aiding in research of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Despite missing out this year, Dr Thang and his colleagues — Dr Graeme Moad and Dr Ezio Rizzardo — need not be disheartened. Since launching its citations in 2002, Thomson Reuters has correctly predicted 35 Nobel Prize laureates, most winning within a few years of being named.
The CSIRO scientists were included for their development of new plastics and polymers with applications across multiple fields, including solar energy, medicine, paint and cosmetics.
Known as RAFT (Reversible Addition-Fragmentation Chain Transfer), IBM, L’Oreal and Dulux are among about 60 companies throughout the world to have taken up the technology. According to a recent article in The Age newspaper, the CSIRO research is also integral to around 600 patents and royalties generated from the technology are forecast to reach more than $32 million by 2021.
“Just being mentioned is personally very gratifying and, for my colleagues and me, it is affirmation of the credibility, worth and application of our work,” says Dr Thang.
While receiving the Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of recognition and achievement in science, simply being in consideration means plenty to Dr Thang, representing something beyond science and born of his own remarkable story.
That story begins with an explanation as to how and why he found himself aboard an unseaworthy, 19m x 3.5m vessel with 408 fellow Vietnamese refugees in the middle of the South China Sea.
“I was 24, I had a degree in physical organic chemistry from university in Saigon and I was in the first stages of my scientific career,” he recalls.
“When the communist forces assumed power in Vietnam in 1975, I stayed on, but by 1979 I felt I had no choice other than to leave. All my family stayed behind and I wouldn’t see them again for almost 20 years. It’s still difficult to think of it.
“The authorities didn’t care that we were leaving. They were only interested in being paid. I handed over gold nuggets. Our lives were not in their calculations. We piled aboard that little fishing boat, all 409 of us, and set off for Malaysia uncertain of the chances of reaching our destination.
“It was a terrible, sometimes terrifying experience. I don’t know how we made it. But when you survive something like that, it makes you stronger. That’s what I took from it.”
The most highly qualified factory labourer in Australia
After five months in a Malaysian refugee camp, Dr Thang was granted permission to settle in Australia and, on October 18, 1979 – almost 35 years ago to the day – he landed in Brisbane and immediately began looking for work.
Employed by a boating company, for a time Dr Thang was arguably the most highly qualified factory labourer in Australia as he waited for his Vietnamese qualifications to be translated into English and attested by Australian education authorities.
“It was the key to everything,” says Dr Thang. “Once my qualifications were recognised, I met Professor Gus Guthrie and he offered me a role as a research assistant in Griffith University’s School of Science.”
That was in 1980 and the offer was typical of the philanthropy exercised by Griffith’s first Pro Vice Chancellor, Professor Roy “Gus” Guthrie, throughout his life. He died in 2013.
“In 1981, Gus suggested I should do Honours with him. He allowed me to enrol part-time and keep my job as a research assistant. Gus and other supervisors such as Ian Jenkins and Ken Busfield, and the University as a whole, were so generous.
“Coming to Griffith was a turning point in my life. I went from the factory to the laboratory. It allowed me to be what I was always meant to be: a scientist.”
Brisbane Lord Mayor Sallyanne Atkinson conferred Australian citizenship on Dr Thang in 1982 and the following year he completed his Bachelor of Science (Honours) in organic chemistry in what is now Griffith’s School of Natural Sciences. In 1987 he completed a PhD in organic/polymer chemistry, also from Griffith.
Having joined the CSIRO in 1986 and moved to ICI the following year, Dr Thang returned to the CSIRO in 1990 and has been there ever since.
Earlier this year, Dr Thang, Dr Rizzardo and Dr Moad received the esteemed ATSE Clunies Ross Award, which recognises the outstanding application of science and technology providing economic, social and/or environmental benefit to Australia.
As for the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, who knows? What didn’t come this year may come in another.
“Whatever happens,” says Dr Thang, “I think that what I’ve learned through the years is this, that to succeed in science requires the same qualities as to succeed in life: never be afraid of failure, always persist and never stop learning,” he says.
“You just never know where that may lead, or the wonders to be found along the way.”