Plant biologist Tien Huynh, a refugee from Vietnam, channelled her love of plants into researching conservation of critically endangered species in Australia. She then moved on to looking at cancer-fighting compounds in Asian plants at RMIT University in Melbourne. This year, she was named a 'Superstar of STEM', a programme run by Science & Technology Australia to recognize successful women and foster their skills as mentors.
Describe your arrival in Australia.
I came to Australia with my mother and sister to join my father when I was six years old, after he had been exiled from Vietnam for his role as an officer in the South Vietnamese army. I did not speak English and had no money and no friends. Everything was completely different. But my parents came from a culture that had a huge respect for education and encouraged my siblings and me to study hard and contribute to the community.
How did your love of plants shape your career?
I was keen on plants before I could even talk. I followed up that passion during my undergraduate degree in biology at RMIT University. Ann Lawrie, an applied biologist, took me under her wing. When I received a scholarship to do an honours degree in plant conservation, I worked with Lawrie and Cassandra McLean, a plant biologist at the University of Melbourne. I did my PhD at the University of Melbourne on conservation of critically endangered orchids, which took me to Kew Gardens near London.
Did you do a postdoc?
I did five between 2004 and 2008. I kept saying yes to chances to study something new. I started off at Kew Gardens, continuing to work on orchids. Then I went to the University of Naples Federico II in Italy to study orchid pheromones and fragrances. But I missed Australia and returned home. My uncle, manager of a US biotechnology company, suggested that I explore cancer research. By that time, McLean had developed cancer so I had personal motivation to follow that course. I then landed a postdoc at RMIT doing skin-cancer research. I loved it, but was soon poached to do neuropharmacology research, only to be nabbed to design pharmaceuticals. It sounds like I jumped here and there, but every project was meaningful and helped me to secure a wide range of skills in many disciplines.
Did you ever struggle with self-doubt?
At the beginning of each postdoc, I would compare myself to people who had been doing that work for much longer and would question whether I belonged. But I realized that I brought experiences they didn't have.
What drew you to medicinal properties of Asian plants?
I considered my background a strength and decided to explore plants from my native region. When I go back to Vietnam, I visit markets to find local plants and foods. In 2009, I saw this bright-orange fruit called red gac (Momordica cochinchinensis). The locals said that it was quite good for you, and I wondered if it could fight cancer, so I brought some back to Australia. We found that the seeds of the plant not only killed up to 95% of melanoma cells, but also contain the highest level of β-carotene and lycopene — food pigments with cancer-fighting properties — of any plant on Earth. I'm also exploring the health benefits of several other Asian plants.
When did you start your own lab?
Lawrie suggested in 2008 that I start teaching. I decided to give it a trial year and realized I have this passion that I was able to convey to students. So that started me here at RMIT and I developed my research lab in 2012.
Are women-focused science awards important?
Yes. Women are so under-represented in the sciences. Young girls who want to be scientists don't have very visible role models. I was lucky to have female role models my whole life. I want to do that for others.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.