AI and triathlon fuel passion of STEMM researcher

AI and triathlon fuel passion of STEMM researcher

A researcher of AI application in skin cancer diagnosis, Le Van Anh has also been steadily working towards the goal of completing her first triathlon.

It’s 5am in Ho Chi Minh City – the sun hasn’t risen and most people are still in a deep slumber, but for Ms Le Van Anh a new day has already begun.

On her agenda today: a swimming class in the early morning, followed by eight hours of work and two hours of cycling in the late afternoon.

Ms Van Anh is training for her debut triathlon relay at the upcoming Ironman 70.3 race in Da Nang city.

With just under two months left for preparation, her focus these days is on getting as much exercise as she can, while balancing her “day job” as a PhD candidate and Artificial Intelligence associate lecturer at RMIT University.

“STEMM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine] are technical disciplines with vast knowledge to master, requiring us to study hard, read extensively and practice continuously. But to do any job well, we also need good health and physical strength,” she said.

“Five years ago I decided to add triathlon [running, swimming, cycling] to my exercise routine. These sports give me a variety of choices and hence, maintain my interest in exercising daily. They complement each other really well and together enhance my endurance, resilience and overall health.”

Ms Van Anh and a fellow runner nearing the finish line of the Vietnam Mountain Marathon race. Ms Van Anh (pictured left) finds joy and balance from having various hobbies outside of work, including yoga, running, cycling, swimming, painting and learning languages. (Photo: Vietnam Mountain Marathon)

Resilience and health are undoubtedly useful qualities for Ms Van Anh on her journey as a Women in STEMM Pre-doctoral Research and Teaching Fellow at RMIT University Vietnam.

This four-year fellowship program by the School of Science, Engineering & Technology includes 80% of the workload dedicated to research towards a PhD degree, and the other 20% to teaching.

The initiative was launched in 2021 with the aim of increasing women's participation in STEMM, and addressing the pipeline of women into academia and then into senior leadership position.

Before starting her PhD journey, Ms Van Anh was a research assistant in Sweden, then a data analyst and a learning advisor for maths and statistics courses at RMIT Vietnam. During that time she gained a lot of knowledge and experience in machine learning and data science.

She was driven by how technology shapes people’s lives throughout the world, and started to want to lead her own research in this field.

Her dream came true last year when she was offered the RMIT Women in STEMM fellowship, and she decided on computer-aided diagnosis of skin cancer as the theme of her PhD.

“Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world. However, the good news is that most cases are curable if they are diagnosed and treated early enough,” Ms Van Anh explained.

“Medical specialists can accurately diagnose the cancer, but it is a time-consuming process that requires deep knowledge and experience.”

Fortunately, AI can aid in this process. However, these advanced technologies often pose a “black box” to humans as they do not provide any rationale for their diagnosis.

“My research is trying to close this gap, so that medical professionals can gain trust in machine learning systems and start to adopt them in their daily work,” she said.

Ms Le Van Anh Ms Van Anh is one of the first two recipients of the RMIT Vietnam Women in STEMM Pre-doctoral Research and Teaching Fellowship.

Ms Van Anh believes that although STEMM fields have been a male-dominated environment for long, it does not mean that women are not good at those subjects.

“It is obvious that we need more women in these fields. And the challenge is how to get more girls interested in the fields.

“From an educational point of view, I think we can extend learning opportunities and create engaging lessons with technology, demystify coding and boost confidence by highlighting female role models.”

Such an approach aligns with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, which advocates for innovation for gender equality.

At RMIT University, for example, several types of scholarship are offered for female students in STEMM disciplines, including the Women in STEMM pre-doctoral fellowship, and the Women in STEM Scholarship for undergraduate students.

“Many people say that doing a PhD is a great time in one person's life as you are paid to study things you are interested in, and as a fellowship holder, that is true for me,” Ms Van Anh said.

“It is even better as I also involve in teaching, which means I can develop valuable skills for an academic at the same time.”

She joked: “It is often said that a PhD year is equivalent to a cat year, which means after each year as a PhD student, you will look four years older than the previous year. For me, I am in the process of testing the theory.”  

“Doing my multi-disciplinary research requires solid knowledge of computer science and medicine, so the learning curve seems to become stiffer every day, but I do hope that only my brain will have more wrinkles, not my face [laughs].”

Female staff and the Dean of the RMIT School of Science, Engineering & Technology celebrated the Vietnamese Women’s Day in 2022. Female staff and the Dean of the RMIT School of Science, Engineering & Technology celebrated the Vietnamese Women’s Day in 2022.

When asked what advice she would give to young women wanting to pursue a career in STEMM, she said: “If you want it, just go for it!”

She elaborated: “Knowledge is open to all people and all genders. Society always needs a diverse labour force to provide new, innovative ideas and different perspectives.”

It’s important to never let the feeling of ‘not knowing’ stop one from trying new things, as Ms Van Anh recalled: “When I began my PhD, I was worried that I did not have a solid background or training, but I learnt that you can teach yourself anything.

“Pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is the way, as you will never know what you might discover.”

Story: Ngoc Hoang and Linh Nhu

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