Award-winning cancer scientist credits refugee story for her success

Each week scientist Dr Tien Huynh spends several hours in a greenhouse in Melbourne’s north tending the Asian plant known as ‘Red Gak’.


Dr Huynh is contributing to research into the plant’s potential to help treat several varieties of cancer.

“Carcinoma, Melanoma and a few other breast cancer – we’ve had other students work on it, very effective. We’re talking about 80 to 98 per cent killing of them but it leaves normal cells alive,” Dr Huynh said.


After spending part of her early childhood under house arrest in Vietnam, Tien, her sister and mother made the perilous journey to Australia.

The trio squeezed into a single seat in a four-metre vessel bound first for Indonesia then Australia where they re-united with their father.

He was exiled from their homeland as a result of his role as a high ranking officer in the South Vietnamese Army.

But young Tien was most inspired by her mother’s strength and tenacity in making the voyage to their new homeland.

“She wanted us to have a future and freedom, and she just decided she was going to sacrifice everything – it was all-or-nothing to go on this journey to Australia and I think it’s quite remarkable,” she said.

The sisters in Indonesia in 1982 en route to Australia.Supplied

It helped engender a can-do attitude and sense of optimism in Tien – at the time the only Asian female in her university science class.

“It was daunting, but it was a challenge – it was exciting like you were the first one there and the first one to make those changes with your perspective, and I think that was a strength as well.

“I focus a lot of my research on Asian medicinal plants, and to me I see that as an opportunity that I’ve got because of my background and difference in culture,” Dr Huynh said.

But it was another high-achieving woman – renowned scientist Adjunct Professor Ann Lawrie who inspired the young Tien Huynh.

“Like a mother figure – and that role-model was really important because she led by example and you see that she’s successful and you see that she can achieve great things just being in her presence was a privilege enough.”

Dr Tien Huynh, left, with her mentee Dao Nguyen.SBS World News

She passed her knowledge to me so generously giving me that inspiration and the passion if I can do that to my own students then I think it’s a great homage to her, she said.

Dr Tien Huynh is now mentoring Dao Nguyen – a masters graduate from a Vietnamese University – the pair is collaborating on the ‘Red Gak’ research project.

According to Dao, Tien is proving to be every bit the leader.

“She’s a great lecturer and she has a big ambition how to inspire other women how to do to inspire woman that they can do anything that they love to do,” Dao Nguyen said.

Her role as a leader in her field and developing conservation programs to protect the potentially life-saving ‘Red Gak’ plant in Vietnam landed Dr Huynh a coveted national ‘STEM’ award for her work as a role model for young women in the field of science – which will be formally presented at a ceremony next month.

October 1970: Dr Tien Huynh’s father during the Vietnam War was the leading lieutenant for the navy (left) and his platoon (right).Supplied