FEA­TURES Fe­male elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer tran­forms world of science

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HAØ NOÄI — Much has been said about women be­ing un­der­rep­re­sented in science and en­gi­neer­ing, and mea­sures have been sug­gested to drive the fe­male pres­ence in the sec­tor, in­clud­ing the im­por­tance of role mod­els.

Nguyeãn Thò Nguyeät, 68, is one out­stand­ing ex­am­ple, rep­re­sent­ing Vieät Nam in 2018 within the ranks of fe­male sci­en­tists at the Asia- Pa­cific Na­tions Net­work (APNN), which is part of an in­ter­na­tional net­work of women en­gi­neers and sci­en­tists.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Haø Noäi Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, Nguyeät started work­ing for Ñoâng Anh Elec­tri­cal Equip­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, part of the State- owned Vieät Nam Elec­tric­ity ( EVN), and ded­i­cated her ca­reer to elec­tri­cal trans­form­ers – de­vices that ad­just volt­ages, up to 500kV and above, from mains elec­tri­cal lines to lev­els ap­pro­pri­ate to either home ap­pli­ances (which re­quire only hun­dreds of volts at best) or to power plants that re­quire hun­dreds of kV.

It’s cer­tainly not a piece of equip­ment that screams ex­cite­ment but Nguyeät’s design for 500kV trans­form­ers in 2010 – co­in­cid­ing with the 1,000th an­niver­sary of the es­tab­lish­ment of the cap­i­tal Haø Noäi – has put Vieät Nam ahead of all other ASEAN na­tions and made it the 12th coun­try in the world to suc­cess­fully pro­duce the de­vice.

Nguyeät’s achieve­ment has been hailed as a great leap for Vieät Nam’s power sec­tor as it has made the coun­try less de­pen­dent on im­ported prod­ucts, which are costly and might ex­pose vi­tal power sup­plies to risks of external sab­o­tage.

For her ser­vice, Nguyeät has re­ceived two Gov­ern­ment com­men­da­tions, sev­eral science awards and recog­ni­tion from the World In­tel­lec­tual Prop­erty Or­gan­i­sa­tion ( WIPO) for her work on the 500kV trans­former.

Af­ter two years of re­search and ex­per­i­ments, she fi­nalised a work­able 110kV us­ing Viet­namese tech­nol­ogy and crafted a com­mer­cially vi­able pro­duc­tion method for the de­vice, which was greatly ap­pre­ci­ated by many prov­inces and cities across the coun­try as pro­duc­tion started to ramp up af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion ( re­newal) pol­icy.

Success didn’t come eas­ily. The anx­i­ety of the first trial run still makes her shiver, be­cause a num­ber of things could have gone wrong and sent her back to the draw­ing board.

“Fire­fight­ers were on standby in case any­thing went wrong. The at­mos­phere was tense and ev­ery­one was wait­ing with bated breath, while top lead­ers and tech­ni­cians dis­cussed whether the sys­tem was ready,” Nguyeät said, re­call­ing the first run of the 110kV trans­former in Vónh Phuùc Prov­ince.

Her 110kV trans­former laid the foun­da­tion for Vieät Nam’s elec­tri­cal equip­ment pro­duc­tion in­dus­try, as it gave it the ca­pac­ity to make high volt­age ma­chin­ery.

Mov­ing on to 2003, she un­der­took a na­tional re­search pro­ject to pro­duce a 220kV trans­former – the main de­vice used in the na­tional power trans­mis­sion sys­tem.

Nguyeät said that dur­ing her re­search, there were times she thought about giv­ing up, be­cause it was a lot more dif­fi­cult than her 110kV de­vice.

En­gi­neer Nguyeãn Ñình Toaøn, who was a trusted part­ner for Nguyeät from the very be­gin­ning, said that at the time, most Viet­namese tech­ni­cians hadn’t seen the con­fig­u­ra­tion for the 220kV trans­former, need­less to say how much of a tall or­der it was to make one.

“But I had faith. Nguyeät is an ex­cel­lent en­gi­neer. She was bril­liant at school, and she pos­sesses great ded­i­ca­tion. There were days when she skipped meals and sleep to work,” Toaøn said.

True to Toaøn’s con­vic­tion, Nguyeät did even­tu­ally pre­vail and Vieät Nam had its first do­mes­ti­cally made 220kv trans­former, which was 20 per cent cheaper than its im­ported coun­ter­parts and worked just as well. Power Plant in the Cen­tral High­lands prov­ince of Gia Lai in 2005, a task pre­vi­ously tasked for for­eign ex­perts.

“Un­der­tak­ing this mission was a huge chal­lenge for me but I had the courage to ac­cept it. When I first pre­sented my ini­tial ideas, Rus­sian ex­perts told me that a sin­gle en­gi­neer, and a fe­male at that, would not be able to do it, be­cause in their coun­try, it took eight lead­ing pro­fes­sors with sup­port from dozens of tech­ni­cians,” Nguyeät re­called.

“If any­thing, their words pro­voked my de­ter­mi­na­tion to prove that be­ing a woman or a man doesn’t mat­ter in science. And that I didn’t need to be a pro­fes­sor to make it, as long as I had my knowl­edge, con­sci­en­tious­ness and pas­sion,” she told Viet­nam News Agency.

Re­al­ity was much harsher than she ex­pected.

Coun­tries ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the de­vices naturally, re­mained highly se­cre­tive of their tech­nolo­gies, which meant her re­search in­volved a lot of de­duc­tion, guess­work and time- con­sum­ing trial- and- er­ror.

Her pro­to­type was first tri­aled on a rainy day in Nho Quan Dis­trict, Ninh Bình Prov­ince.

“The 200- tonne sta­tion trem­bled and made a lot of noise. I was ter­ri­fied and thought there may have been a short- cir­cuit some­where, but I re­mained con­fi­dent in my work and thought that maybe some­one else had made a mis­take some­where. I tried to keep calm and in­spected the wiring, and my hunch turned out to be right. Af­ter that, the whole thing went smoothly,” Nguyeät said.

The in­ci­dent re­vealed the de­vice was work­ing fine be­cause oth­er­wise, dis­as­trous con­se­quences would have hap­pened, she said.

Dur­ing her time work­ing in the elec­tric­ity field, so fraught with lethal dan­gers and huge eco­nomic losses, Nguyeät was high­lystrung a lot of the time, given the de­mand­ing at­ten­tion the job re­quired.

Nguyeät said she was grate­ful for the sup­port of her hus­band, who she said “al­ways had her back” even when a work­life balance proved im­pos­si­ble at times.

She ad­mit­ted that she wasn’t ex­actly the typ­i­cal home­maker that is of­ten en­forced upon or ex­pected of Viet­namese women in a society steeped with Con­fu­cian tra­di­tions and val­ues.

“I just wouldn’t have been good at the whole home­mak­ing thing, al­though I al­ways tried to give love to my hus­band and chil­dren.”

While there should be no dis­tin­guish­ing fea­tures be­tween men and women in science, fe­male sci­en­tists are of­ten dealt a bad hand, Nguyeät said.

“In a house­hold, if the hus­band comes home late from work, the wife has to make sure a meal is ready, the chil­dren are cared for and the house is clean. But for me, as a wife, I felt sad that some­times dur­ing busy re­search pe­ri­ods, I wasn’t able to do that for my fam­ily,” she said.

She re­called one oc­ca­sion when she was work­ing on the 110kV trans­former and her child fell sick, but she chose to fol­low the call of duty in­stead of rush­ing home.

“I told her that I had to go to the fac­tory to man­age the in­stal­la­tion, and that I would be back home in no time. But the job got me car­ried me away, and I to­tally for­got about my sick child wait­ing at home. I only re­mem­bered when we fin­ished the job, and my daugh­ter was run­ning a high fever. I was so wor­ried,” she said.

“She was not happy.” She said to me: “You just carry on work­ing, but I could be dy­ing here.”

“Those words cut like knives,” said Nguyeät

Now in her re­tire­ment with plenty of leisure time to spend with her fam­ily, Nguyeät still isn’t ready to call it a day yet, say­ing that she still has so much more to give, es­pe­cially to in­spire the younger gen­er­a­tions.

“No mat­ter how dif­fi­cult it is, in any dire cir­cum­stance, I am ready to take on a mission and try my best to bring ben­e­fits to my coun­try and my peo­ple,” she said. — VNS

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