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.