Sept. 14, 2018

A saga about VEF interview

I were in luck, and that is not an understatement. I knew other applicants who much smarter than me. Within my undergrad school, those applicants simply blew me out water. I attended Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST), formerly known as Hanoi University of Technology (HUT). Many of my classmates came from the provincial gifted schools if not the gifted schools belong to the MOET.

In 2009, I submitted my application to the VEF online system round May. In August, I passed the screening process that mostly took care of incomplete applications or obvious unqualified ones. The post below was originally posted on's forum in August 7, 2009 . Thank to the website to store my data, otherwise I cannot recall that much in detailed.

10h02, a secretary – Mr Chu came and called my name. He asked if I was in Civil Engineering which I did not. My major is Environmental Engineering. He told me that, in this room, there were two US professors; they would ask question and another, a Vietnamese professor just observed the interview with no question. I never looked at to my watch from this time.

Dr. Case and Dr. Robert Duane Hanson were ready for the interview. They welcomed me with nice smile and white teeth. Shaking hand and greeting were the first things I did. My name is Binh, like the name of [famous product of MS - Bing]. Both professors seemed to be surprised and have fun for my greeting. Dr. Case pointed toward the white board right behind me “you can write or draw picture on it”, I replied “I hope to be an artist to draw nice pictures!” Dr Case continued “Tell us a little bit about your self and your family?” I graduated from Hanoi University of Technology ... years ago. From this time, I work for private company in CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) projects. My father is a teacher, I have a little sister. Our parents live in Middle of Vietnam, near ... province. Dr. Case looked at my application, “you have studied in HUT, it is ok”.

“Now, you have done a lot interesting research here, just pick one that you like the most”.Well, most of my researches were coursework or course project that I did in some important courses. Thinking in 3 seconds, I choose my final thesis to be the thing I want to tell them today. “My most interested research is my final thesis which is “stimulation wastewater plant by ASM3”. I stressed that what I have done is mostly review the literature and to be an engineer – calculation the basic parameters for wastewater treatment plant.

Dr. Case “Just draws the diagram about wastewater plant?” And I draw it. Getting nervous because I could not pronounce clearly and exactly what I need to say. It is ok. The white board is the thing VEF come up with to remove the gap of English of interviewees and interviewers, both of us can understand what we saw in white board without too much explanation. When I draw, I said that my hand writing is terrible, that why I used computer too much. I heard they laughed. I blocked the biological reactors to my focus part of my research. Ok, No question about it. Then Dr Hanson asked me about energy need for these reactors, how we can run them effectively and efficiently. Well, not too much difficult. The model is developed to help us can predict the need of oxygen of reactor, so we can control the pump- considered the most energy consumption in wastewater plant. In addition to this, with model we can expand the ability to operating.

Dr. Hanson was quite silent, now he asked. “You have been working for CDM project, tell us what CDM means?” I have been working for 2 years. CDM projects are very familiar. “this is one of three mechanisms under Kyoto Protocol which basically green house gasses” draw a diagram of what Annex I countries do and developing countries do and receive, “annex I countries with come from European, Japan, they provide the money for developing countries to develop clean technology through buying carbon credits”. I took an example of building hydropower plant and coal-fired plant to explain to them more. Dr. Case: “it is seemed that annex I countries do not do anything in their countries?” Smiling, I answered “actually, what happened here is economics”, draw two number of 95% and 99%, “if we can increase the efficiency of one pump from 95% to 99% to archive one 1ton CO2 reduction, the cost is 100$ (airblade), now they invested it through developing countries, for example, hydropower plant, to achieve the same thing, 1 ton CO2 with 10$”. Both of them looked satisfied. Dr. Case told Dr. Hanson “this is international issues”. I added “personally, I think science and economics just two part of one process. Science deal with product, quality and economics is the cost. When we achieve the same thing, we will compare the cost”.

Dr. Hanson “tell us about what your company do?” I draw the cycle with I quite sure about it, explained to them what CDM project stared, how to turn from idea to Certified Reduction Emission to have money. They seemed already know about it.

Dr Case “So annex I countries just wait to buy carbon credit!” “No, they actively work. They provide us the opportunity to have cleaner technology”. Dr. Hanson add question on how many people that my company have, “about ..., I should say it is very small”. Both of them smile, “it is good”.

Dr Case wanted to start again in my research. “Now just tell me what your model used in your research”. Carefully, wrote the name of ASM3- Activated Sludge Model No 3, show them what part of biological reactor applied for this model. I told them about the model structure- with no much clear pronunciation. “it is a matrix, consist of 13 components and 12 processes, it each position in matrix, we have number to show how what amount of component is used to this process”, then I continued “and I used mass balance equation, accumulation = input-output + reaction” and wrote it in white board. “This is heart of this model” and adding “ in stabilization process, accumulation is assumed to be zero and input and output are calculated by flow rate and COD and divided them with the components above, the reaction part is calculated by sum of reaction of process”.

Dr. Case seemed ok with this but he continued to fire other question. “What the model you use and what the input, output?”.

I said “Well, first, I tried to program my self by C++ but it worked so bad, I could not have the good illustration and I come up with using ASIM Demo version. I used my parameters that I had calculated like to volume of reactor, volume of classifier, using COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) of Hanoi wastewater and run it”. Wrote the name of software and where it came from to the white board, went to other side and wrote to blank part of white board. “I assumed that the wastewater experience overflow or over loading of COD, nitrogen and I have graph like this”, draw a line to white board with a bit of variant and other line, explain to them why it is different.

Dr. Case “Do you apply statistics and quality control?” “Actually, I hate to tell you this, I have no chance to do my experiment by my own, what I have done is review literature and present it to both people in my field and others can understand it- statistics is something goes beyond my research”, and I continued “in fact, just some prominent professor in top university in Vietnam know about it, I am the first student who present it and do research about it, I have not much time to do my experiment” (I missed his question but shown my humility, September 2018). “but I think statistics is very important when we deal with many number and we need to choose to good number”, write the diagram in white board, take one point is the “true value”, other point to observed points and say that “the statistics help us to chose this value and left this number”, draw the horizontal line with “true value” point. I added “although I do not do anything in my research but I know about it like standard deviation and 6 sigma”. Dr Case smile when I said about “standard deviation” and ask “what about 6 sigma?”. Clean the white and I said “you always ask .. . sharp questions!”. They laughed which I can hear clearly. “Six sigma is about standard distribution, if we take 1 sigma, we have this part- about 63% but if we use 6 sigma, the amount of this part” pointing at the tail of standard distribution that I had drawn “ is about 60/ 1million”. Turning to Dr. Case, I said “I just read a book and know about it, please correct me if I am wrong?” He smiled “I’m not sure about the number but the idea is ok” (it looks like with 6 sigmas, the area in two tails is 3.4/1 million). I also said about quality control “quality control is very import in lab work, this is basically need approved procedure and people who do it have certificate to do it”.

Dr. Case asked “do you know any professor, Vietnamese professor who work in flow control chart?” I know nothing about those people, but do not instantly answer. 2 second later, I said “Actually, I don’t know anyone who work in this area, but I really appreciate if” looked to name card “Dr. Kenneth Case can give the new view, perception in this area”. Dr. Case said “you used model and the flow control chart is very important”. “yes”, went to white board, drew the last thing “I don’t know much about flow control chart, but I guess that we try to build a standard line and based on it, we have the range of accuracy value and left other value outside of the range”.

Returned to the table, Dr. Case had stop to ask question. Dr. Hanson asked the last question “do you consider other schools than three school you mentioned in you application, A, B and C? ”Yes, “I consider D and professor LN (feel like Nancy Love in Umich) work in my interested area and E has prof. BR (this is my future advisor), he is a big man in my area and write a famous textbook that I have read”. I added “I know that B is not VEF alliance but I like people there, they are very nice and replying my email with carefully introduction, in fact, they add my email to grad coordinator and send me new letters”. “In C, I contact prof. GP (Gene Parkin, a senior to BER in Perry McCarty's group, GP retired in ~2014) but he will not accepting any new student other professor say that he will consider when see my full application”. Ok. Dr. Hanson said, “it is perhaps prof. GP is about to retire so he will not accept new students”. He looked to Dr. Case and said “I have no question to ask”, Dr. Case smiled in an agreeing way. I just say some nice work and show my nervous and think that there are a lot of talented people here and I may not that “talented people”. They encourage me and said ok. Goodbye greeting and “I know you have been in VN many time but I hope you have fun and happy when travel in Vietnam”.

Then, just a small conversation with the secretary, returned to receptionist desk at 10h43, spent a couple of minutes to share my interview information with other appliants waiting for their turn, then went down by elevator look to Truc Bach lake. Exhale!

the end.

And here is the comment from anh Bang, the founder of the vietphd forum.

PS. Yesterday (September 13, 2018), I attended the closing ceremony of the VEF program. More on that later. It was held in the same hotel I was interview for the fellowship (Sofitel) and the hotel that the U.S. president like to stay when he visited Hanoi (President Barack Obama stayed at JW Marriott Hotel Hanoi in 2016). The hotel is branded to Pan Pacific.

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