Truc Ngo, PhD Receives Faculty Engineering Spotlight Award

Born and raised in Vietnam, Dr. Truc Ngo moved to America at the age of 17 with lofty dreams of becoming an engineer. Though she had no role models for inspiration, she excelled in math and chemistry and believed that engineering would provide an enticing and solid career path. As luck would have it, she was spot on.

“I started at a local university in Augusta, Georgia then transferred to study chemical engineering at Georgia Tech,” explains Ngo. “Chemical engineering covers a wide range of fields; it has a soft side and hard side to it. I quickly realized this was exactly what I wanted.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology, she felt that what she had learned during her undergraduate years was not fulfilling her thirst of knowledge or sufficiently preparing her to do what she desired to do in her career. She had graduated at the top of her class and wanted more. She proceeded to earn her PhD in chemical engineering from the same institution, specializing in applications of spectroscopy to study phase equilibria of organic solids and polymer processing in supercritical fluids.

“About a third of the way through the PhD program, it became clear to me that industry was going to be my path, at least at the start. I craved that experience of working as a real engineer in the field, researching and developing the latest and greatest technologies to make the world a better place,” says Ngo. “I was weighing different job options along the east coast, including one right in my hometown, but then I decided to venture out.”

Ngo loved electronics and elected to enter into the semiconductor industry. With the world at her feet, she traveled across country and accepted a job offer in Oregon with Intel Corporation, working as a senior process engineer for their R&D fab.

“The work environment was highly disciplined, dynamic and very competitive. It forced me to learn a lot within a short amount of time, not only about the latest technologies for making microchips, but also about how to survive and thrive in a highly competitive industry environment,” says Ngo.

She continues, “I worked with interdisciplinary teams, researched and developed cutting-edge manufacturing processes to build microchips from bare silicon, created solutions to product quality problems, eliminated potential sources of defects, increased product performance and maximized yield. There was a lot of opportunity to solve highly challenging, technical problems everyday at work and see the impact on product outcomes. It was incredibly rewarding.”

Dr. Ngo had earned several outstanding team and individual awards while working at Intel.

In 2004 Ngo decided to make another move and was offered a job at San Diego City College. She had a unique opportunity to develop a two-year associate degree manufacturing engineering technology program for the college.

“It was the first of its kind in the state,“ reflects Ngo proudly. “The first year I made tons of industry connections with technical executives around the San Diego area, brainstorming ideas for the program. Since the students graduating from this program would serve as potential employees for these companies, I wanted this program development to be a collaborative effort between industry and the college, and not just what our own engineering department saw fit.”

Ngo formulated the two-year program with a 2+2+2 model in mind. In this model, students could start taking entry-level classes starting in their junior year of high school, then enter community college to complete their associate degree, and eventually transfer to a four-year university to pursue a bachelor’s degree in a manufacturing-related program.

“It was intimidating at the beginning, but with a little seed money and industry support, I was able to obtain several significant grants from the state of California and develop a complete program with lecture courses complimented with strong hands-on lab component,” says Ngo.

Ngo led a STEM workshop for high school students in the Sweetwater School District during her years at City College, and Kathleen Kramer, a professor of electrical engineering at USD, was one of the guest speakers at the event.

“Kathleen invited me to teach as an adjunct professor in 2007. I taught the manufacturing processes lecture class in spring semesters for two years at USD,” says Ngo. “I wasn’t looking for another job at the time. I was a tenured associate professor at City College, but Lenny Perry, department chair of the industrial and systems engineering program, had asked me to apply for a full-time position at USD to help revitalize the manufacturing program, so I thought to give it a try.”

In Fall 2009, Ngo accepted the job because of the opportunity to teach and conduct research that she had missed dearly since moving to City College. She successfully brought the manufacturing program courses up to date at USD engineering, added more variety to the labs and acquired more equipment.

“I liked to expose our students to a variety of common manufacturing processes, so they could have a competitive edge in the job market and be better prepared for industry. Lecture and lab components of the manufacturing courses used to be quite separate and independent of one another. With the updated curriculum, I made sure there was a tight connection and integration between the labs and the lectures, which had improved student learning and helped reinforce theoretical concepts through hands-on practices,” explains Ngo.

Upon arrival at USD as a full-time assistant professor, she started building up her research and focusing on projects with long-lasting impacts. She had classes to teach and other service duties, and recognized she couldn’t do the research on her own — she needed students.

“I had worked with a couple of undergraduate research students during my PhD years, but not much after that. I needed students to help carry out my research agenda, so I was determined to learn how to work with them in the most effective way. It actually didn’t take long to figure out. The key is in the student’s interest. If the student is truly interested in the project and motivated to participate in research, they can be trained and become helpful to you in no time. I took time to identify their strengths and found ways to help them work on their weaknesses,” beams Ngo. “What motivated me to continue to recruit students was the mutual reward of having them help me while helping themselves figure out what they wanted to do in life — to find meaning in their studies.”

During her seven years at USD, Ngo has published 10 peer-reviewed journal articles, 11 conference proceedings, and one book chapter. She received the 2014 San Diego Outstanding Engineering Educator of the Year Award.

In addition to her research work, Ngo is especially focused on humanitarian engineering efforts. Being born in the midst of the Vietnam War and growing up in a torn country, she saw rich people getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Some got help while a majority of the people were abused or neglected.

She recalls, “Seeing the unjust in the world and the suffering of many near and far, I knew I could not sit still. I was given a decent life, knowledge that very few could have the opportunity to acquire, and a position where I can help make a difference. So I was determined to change the world for the better, even if it takes one tiny step at a time.”

For two years running she has taken undergraduate students and staff on humanitarian missions to the Dominican Republic (DR). With nearly 40 percent of water systems in the DR lacking chlorination systems and recent outbreaks of cholera and E coli devastating the region, the initial commitment was to explore cost-effective means of ensuring the availability of safe drinking water for the inhabitants in El Cercado, a mountainous town near the border of Haiti.

Ngo and her team installed and pilot tested two water chlorinator systems in two villages on the first working trip in 2015. Six more were put in place on the second trip in 2016. While building the chlorinators, feedback was solicited from the communities and after nine months of operation, no cholera was detected in those two villages and local leaders claimed observation of fewer water-borne diseases in mothers and children. The team was also able to build 37 efficient wood-burning stoves that addressed deforestation and women’s health problems in the region, and implemented three solar water heaters in El Cercado between 2015 and 2016.

“We worked with community members and trained them how to maintain and operate the chlorinators. This gave them a higher sense of responsibility and product ownership,” says Ngo. ”The experience was also life-changing for the students. After the trip they were more appreciative of what they have and realized they really are Changemakers.”

When Ngo does have spare time, she loves mountain biking with her husband, hiking, camping, and outdoor adventures with her kids. She is passionate about music and enjoys special times with long-time friends. “I love spending time with my children. They enjoy going to work at USD with me during the summers (when they can play lots of video games and help me with some office work) and we take lots of family vacations.”

When considering the most satisfying aspect of her work, Ngo reveals, “I have taught hundreds of students, but once in a while I receive a note or a visit from a former student and they share that I had made a difference in their lives, and I tell myself that I must have done something right. Also, knowing that I can do something during my lifetime to help save lives and improve quality of life for the poorest people in the most remote regions of the world — those are the most satisfying moments that motivate me to continue what I do.”