Hung Nguyen and son Jordan Nguyen
Photo by Joanne Saad
- Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology Hung Nguyen and son, PhD in biomedical engineering student, Jordan Nguyen talk about their work on the Aviator thought-controlled wheelchair
- The pair also discuss their different research interests and what it’s like living, working and playing tennis together
Hung Nguyen is the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology and the Co-Director of the Centre for Health Technologies. His son Jordan is completing his PhD in biomedical engineering. Though both are involved in the development of the Aviator thought-controlled wheelchair, and have teamed up to take out their fair share of local doubles tennis tournaments, that’s where the similarities end.
Jordan first showed interest in what I do when he was 10, when I brought him into UTS for Open Day. I have three younger children, one girl and two boys. They are triplets. During one Open Day at UTS, I had to mind Jordan while my wife looked after the triplets, just to give her a break, otherwise he would have caused havoc at home. I was already working in robotics at that time – I had an intelligent robot that could play chess and Connect 4 in real time – and had set up a demonstration. On that day, I had to leave the robot briefly and left Jordan to line up people to wait for my demonstration, but when I got back he had the whole thing going and was talking to people about how it worked.
I never thought he’d go into engineering; it was only in year 12, in 2002, that he came up to me and said, ‘Dad, I kind of like what you’re doing’. I had already moved into biomedical engineering and I think that’s what interested him. I started working on my first wheelchair in 1995, on head movement control, and in 2000 I started to work on thought control. I said to Jordan, ‘Please go to Sydney University or to UNSW, they’re very good there’. I thought there would be big problems because I was teaching and he would have to be in my class at some stage. But Jordan came back and said he wanted to study at UTS. Maybe I was tougher on him than other students, but during that time I realised he could work very well independently, so after that I left him alone.
The work we do with the wheelchair is really big; we have a lot of PhD students. Jordan’s looking at one area of the wheelchair – he’s into the cameras and he’s also trying to link it to some sort of hands-free control, including head movement. Jordan’s path is a bit more focused on robotics and biomedical engineering. My research looks at three areas: one is diabetes, the second is cancer and the third is disabilities. This year my device HypoMon, which detects low blood sugar non-invasively, without taking blood, was named the MedTech Product of the Year in the BioSpectrum Asia Pacific Awards.
Jordan’s quite different from me at the same age – I was introverted and he’s an extrovert. That’s probably why we work very well together. I can see us working together in the future, but he probably needs to spend some time in a biomedical company first to learn a few different skills.
Our relationship is very solid; we have learned to cope with each other, trust each other. Jordan and I play doubles tennis in many championships at the Crestwood Tennis Association and never fight on court. We fight now and then outside – Jordan’s still living at home, and probably will be until after he finishes his PhD. He’s the same person at home as he is at UTS – he has a wonderful disposition and is very kind. He has a lot of strength and when he works hard, he works extremely hard. He’s very well-rounded and I’m very proud of him.
Leading up to year 12 I was most interested in becoming a professional tennis player. From memory, dad did back me – he got me to see a couple of professional coaches because he’s been my coach since I was eight. Then I got a back injury. When I was young I’d been exposed to the robotics he’d designed, so I started looking at electrical engineering courses. But I thought UTS’s balance between theory and practice was what I really needed because I wasn’t very good at learning only from books.
When I was in third year I had an accident that changed my whole direction. I went to a friend’s house and was diving into their pool. The diving board came loose and moved back when I dived off it, which resulted in my head hitting the bottom of the pool and snapping to the side. I damaged the muscles in my neck, but luckily I didn’t break my spine. I started looking at what options there are for quadriplegics. There aren’t many.
I told dad I was going to get first class honours and possibly move on to do a PhD, but he didn’t believe me. My marks in second year weren’t very good, but I put in a lot more effort from then on and graduated with first class honours. During that time Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical, Mechanical and Mechatronic Systems Steven Su offered me a research assistant position. I also worked in different parts of the uni, going out and talking to high schools and contributing to a few conference papers. I didn’t realise all those things would count towards doing a PhD, but it meant I was able to skip my masters and get a scholarship to do my doctoral degree.
Steven is my supervisor so he’s the person I consult with at all stages of development, but in all honesty it’s dad I talk to. I give him updates on what I’ve done and he tries to keep me on track. Last year he was a state finalist in the NSW Australian of the Year. I was so proud of him. He’s worked so hard to get to where he is and that inspires me.
Sometimes it’s like I’ve got three dads. He’s a very sharp-shooting professional at uni – he’s the dean and that’s the way I see him. At home he’s a dad – we actually don’t talk about work. And at tennis he’s my coach, my partner. He’s kind of like Mr Miyagi on the tennis court – you know how the karate kid would get frustrated and couldn’t understand how he was learning – it was the same with many aspects of the way dad taught me.
People just assume I want to become a lecturer, but I don’t think anyone realises how connected I am to this project. The more well-known our work becomes, the more people tell me their stories. At first it was confronting, now it’s motivating. I know dad has his doubts, and in all honesty I do too, but I’m aiming to finish my PhD this semester. I have a whole bunch of ideas that relate to the wheelchair, but don’t have anything to do with my PhD, and I can’t wait to move forward with those.