It's been almost a decade since Dr Thong Pham left the University of Wollongong (UOW), but he remembers his time as a Wollongong student as if it were yesterday, down to the free green bus route.
“I lived in a house on College Place which was walking distance to the university and the first stop when catching the free bus into the city,” he recalls.
Dr Pham had arrived from Vietnam in 2011 on a scholarship to complete his PhD in structural engineering under supervision of Professor Muhummad Hadi. More than ten years on, he is now one of the world’s most cited civil engineering academics and is forever grateful for his time at UOW.
“I got world-class training at the University of Wollongong – the environment was incredibly supportive and productive, and it was such a beautiful and peaceful city,” he says.
Dr Thong Pham on Sea Cliff Bridge in the north of the Illawarra
Growing up in the rural Vietnamese province of Phu Yen, Dr Pham was consistently the top of his classes, and the city, excelling in mathematics and physics throughout all his schooling.
He went on to study Bachelor of Civil Engineering (Honours) from Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology, graduating with top marks and securing a range of scholarship offers to complete a PhD in Singapore, Japan and Australia.
“I had offers from universities in multiple countries, but I really wanted to go to Wollongong. I had seen the beaches and wanted to have a balanced life between work and study,” he says.
The promise of a “relaxed lifestyle” was a major drawcard for Dr Pham to head to Australia, but it didn’t stop him for putting in long hours studying all day, almost every day.
“I would wake up early, at 5am every morning, to get into uni by 6am, and work all the way through till 9 or 10pm. Back then, I’d only have Sundays off. One day was enough of a weekend for me, I was so knowledge hungry,” he remembers.
Alongside this dedication, Dr Pham had the added hurdle of living in a new country away from family and learning a new language. But he says the support of both his supervisor and the University helped him settle in.
“I tried hard because I couldn’t communicate effectively with my supervisor on my first day. I joined every available English club at UOW – whatever they had, I joined. I remember the library had quite a few workshops to help PhD students [learn English] and I made sure not to miss any,” he says.
“At the time, I wasn’t very confident [with my English] but I wanted to push myself, so I registered myself as a tutor to help with my communication. After the first semester, I got really good feedback from students. The coordinator and also my supervisor got a nice surprise. That experience helped me a lot.”
It was this dedication that led him to receive the 2013 Peter Schmidt Memorial Scholarship in his second year, awarded to the highest performing PhD student in the Faculty of Engineering. He also received commendation for his PhD thesis (the highest honour for a PhD grad from Australia) and came second in Australia when reviewed by the Concrete Institute of Australia (CIA).
Dr Pham at his UOW PhD graduation
While Dr Pham laughs that he was “a bit unlucky” to just miss first place, he would experience a full-circle moment as a supervisor just a few years later.
As a senior lecturer at Curtin University, he became a supervisor, taking on a PhD student and encouraged them to submit their own thesis to the CIA competition.
“This was my first PhD student and he ended up winning the competition, recognised as the best thesis in Australia by the CIA. He was the first ever Curtin University student to win that award in 20 years of the competition history," he says.
Two years later, another of Dr Pham’s students was awarded runner up in this highly competitive competition.
He spent almost nine years at Curtin University, working his way up to senior lecturer. It was here he built an impressive resume of accolades, including as a finalist for the Early Career Research Award in 2018, plus receiving the Highly Commendable Paper Award and Best Young Researcher's Paper Award in 2019 for his research at Curtin. His recent research received an award for excellence in technology and innovation from CIA-WA in 2021.
Dr Pham has since been recognised in the top two per cent of researchers worldwide, a list compiled by Stanford University and Elselvier based on research impact. In just a few years, he jumped from the thousands to the top 200 out of more than 50,000 civil engineering researchers across the globe.
Now an Associate Professor at the University of South Australia in Adelaide with 11 PhD students under his supervision, he still remembers his time at UOW with immense pride and joy.
“The Botanic Gardens were especially important to me. Sometimes, I’d have a big idea and if I wanted to figure it out, I wouldn’t stay in my office, I would head into the gardens to really think,” he says.
Dr Pham in the Wollongong Botanic Gardens
“I would wake up and go for my morning run through the gardens. One time, I was thinking hard about writing a paper, and during my run I came up with the idea. I didn’t go home, I ran straight to the office and worked on it until the afternoon – I remember it so clearly.”
“Those things were great at helping me get away from the busy study environment for a few days and get back with great productivity.”