A gift of five ounces of gold and a leap of faith set Monash chemistry professor San Thang on a remarkable adventure that started on a leaking boat and involved a brush with a band of pirates.
San finished his science degree in 1975, the same year the communists took control of Vietnam.
He was the top science student in his year, but before he could graduate as a chemistry major he had to spend nine months studying Marxism and socialism.
Higher university study wasn’t possible in Vietnam at that time. Students favoured by the Communist Party had the possibility of studying in Eastern Bloc countries, but San wasn’t among them.
His parents were Chinese, and his brothers had occupied positions in the vanquished government of south Vietnam.
At night he studied postgraduate chemistry informally with a former professor, who had used his influence to stop San being posted to a remote rural area as a teacher. By day San worked as a chemist at a sewing machine factory, carrying out wet chemistry analytical work and electroplating delicate equipment.
“I did not see any future,” he says.
When the exodus of boat people from Vietnam began in earnest in 1978, San decided to take his chances. His brother gave him five ounces of gold to buy a seat on a fishing boat. He left Ho Chi Minh City on 4 April, 1979.
“It was a wooden fishing boat,” he explains. “It was absolutely not seaworthy.”
The boat was 19 metres long and 3.5 metres wide, he says, and somehow accommodated 409 people. For the first few hours of the journey, all the passengers were crammed below deck to avoid detection before reaching international waters.
“Most of the people were seasick,” he says. “You can imagine the chaotic scenes.”
San couldn’t swim – he still can’t.
On the third day, Thai pirates rammed the wooden fishing boat and boarded with guns, throwing the boat’s compass into the sea.
“They came over and took anything that was metal – watches, rings, necklaces – anything they could see.”
The passengers were told that if they didn’t resist the pirates, their women and children wouldn’t be harmed. San’s only possessions were some clothes in a small bag; he was left alone.
Before leaving the fishing boat, the pirates told the boat owner that he’d reach land if he didn’t deviate from his course. All that night, the young men in the boat, including San, bailed the water that was gathering below deck where the hull had been damaged during the pirate attack.
On the morning of 8 April, a tiny Malaysian island appeared on the horizon. It was “a ray of hope”, says San.
Three weeks later, from the refugee camp on Bidong Island, he sent a telex to his family to tell them he was safe. He stayed on the island for five months, serving as deputy officer in charge of the refugees before being assigned to Brisbane. “I was very fortunate to go to Australia,” he says.
Thirty-nine years later, Monash’s Professor San Thang became a Companion of the Order of Australia in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. “I must be doing something right,” he says cheerfully.
In 2014, he and his fellow organic chemists at the CSIRO, Ezio Rizzardo and Graeme Moad, were named the three Australian scientists most likely to win the Nobel chemistry prize. The call was made by a Thomson Reuters analysis of scientific research citations – the mass media company has a solid (although not infallible) record of picking Nobel winners.
While at the CSIRO, the trio developed a process known as reversible addition-fragmentation chain-transfer polymerisation (RAFT), a new way of making polymers, which are large molecules comprised of many sub-units.
Polymers occur naturally (wool, silk, DNA), but can also be manufactured (nylon, polystyrene, Bakelite). The RAFT process gives chemists much greater control at the molecular level, allowing them to manipulate the molecule’s shape, as well as its weight.
RAFT was first patented in 1998, and has since generated more than 11,000 scientific papers by many researchers around the world. The versatile process has been used in paint production, in cosmetics, and as a lubricant in cars.
In medicine, RAFT technology is being used to make some chemotherapy drugs water-soluble, so that they’re less toxic to the human body; it’s also being applied to direct drugs to specific, cancer-affected organs. Researchers are looking at delivering anti-cancer gene therapies using RAFT.
“The RAFT process can have many applications, including biological applications, because it has no trace of organic metal,” says Professor Thang. “That is a big advantage.”
The technology has earned millions in royalties for the CSIRO, but that didn’t stop Dr Thang from losing his CSIRO job in 2014 due to government budget cuts. He stayed on in an honorary capacity for a time, telling the ABC: “In life, there’s give and take, and I suppose I’ve been taking so much from the organisation or people around me, so maybe it’s time I can give back.”
In May 2015, he joined Monash as a professor of chemistry; that year, he also became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.
“The RAFT process can have many applications, including biological applications, because it has no trace of organic metal. That is a big advantage.”
In his office in the Monash chemistry building, Professor Thang has a picture of the people who have helped him since his arrival in Australia. A place of honour goes to the late Professor Gus Guthrie from Griffith University, who hired him as a research assistant, rescuing him from a factory job. Professor Guthrie also encouraged him to pursue his honours degree and his PhD.
Professor Thang calls his story “from boat to RAFT”. He’s a committed Christian, and takes time off from research three times a year to work with his Christian community. Asked if his life’s trajectory has given him faith, he affirms it has, but adds that his scientific research is also a deep source of wonder.
“The universe is so great, but you can see that there is order,” he says. “Right down to the nano, you can see the order in how things are made.”
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