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Communicating in a disaster: 2017 Newton Prize winner

By Dr Trung Q. Duong

Being born and raised in Hoi An town, Quang Nam province, which is one of the most vulnerable areas to natural disaster in Vietnam, I saw many horrific disasters like storms and floods. I promised myself that one day I would make a positive impact in Vietnam and give something back to the country that I grew up in. I vowed to help solve some of the many problems for the citizens of Vietnam when they face a natural disaster.

I am so pleased to have won the 2017 Newton Prize for Vietnam. The prize money of £200,000 will allow me and my team of UK-Vietnamese researchers to take our project to the next level and work with the key telecommunications companies in Vietnam. By doing so we can provide citizens with better warning, measurement tools and education initiatives. The Newton Prize award ceremony in Vietnam allowed me and the shortlisted projects to be recognised globally.

Natural disasters are a big problem in Vietnam and across the globe. The impact is worse for those in remote and isolated areas with no access to ICT facilities which are essential in providing vital warnings and aiding rescue missions.

In Vietnam, 70% of the country’s population is at risk from natural disaster, particularly the rural and urban poor. In the past two decades, disasters have claimed more than 13,000 lives and caused £5.2billion of damage. Power cuts and signal blackouts are common during a natural disaster, which causes difficulties for emergency services. Our UK-Vietnam team has come up with a solution to the problem in a wireless communications system which can withstand natural disasters such as an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane. It can cope with issues such as physical destruction of telecommunication networks, lack of power supply and network congestion. The system also provides early warning of natural disasters by detecting water level, vibration and wind. In cities, the project can detect increases in dust, temperature, noise and carbon dioxide levels.

In addition, we have trained more than 160 lecturers/PhD and MSc students from 20 universities, private and public sector in Vietnam through our two summer schools, one extended seminar, and two international conferences. These activities aimed to improve knowledge and research skills for current or prospective PhD students who are developing their interests in academic research

The Newton Fund more broadly has a major positive impact on my academic career. I was awarded my PhD degree in September 2012 and then became a Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast just one year after (November 2013). Becoming an academic straight after my PhD was not an easy task, especially to be an independent early career researcher (ERC). I found it quite challenging to secure external funding to build up my research group. I found it very different between writing a research paper (as a PhD student) and transforming a novel idea into grant (as an academic researcher). One of the most difficult things was to create a network and to form a consortium so that we could together solve the biggest challenges in the world. Luckily, the Newton Fund started in 2014 and provided me such a great opportunity. Without the support from the Newton Fund, particularly, the Institutional Links Grant (my first research grant), I would not have been able to build my research group and it has given me the confidence to secure more grants.

The Newton Prize is about finding innovative solutions to the world’s problems and developing shared expertise and capacity in both countries. My advice for potentials applicants of the 2018 Newton Prize is to definitely apply as it could change your career for the better and open up many opportunities for further research and collaborations. I wish you all the best with your application.

Dr. Trung Q. Duong is a Reader in Signal Processing for Communications at Queen’s University Belfast and a Royal Academy Engineering Research Fellow (2016-2021). He has been awarded 8 research grants in the Newton Fund including Researcher Link Travel Grants (with Vietnam), Researcher Link Workshop (with Turkey), Institutional Links (with Vietnam), Research Collaboration Program (with Turkey and Vietnam), Research Environment Links (REL) (with Vietnam), International Fellowship (with India), and Newton Prize 2017 (with Vietnam).