By Grace Chua
WHEN Ms Le Thi Nguyet Minh first arrived here to study at the National University of Singapore in 2001, she went from being Vietnam's top biology student to earning dismal grades because of her struggles with English.
In the years since then, she has had to cope with her mother being afflicted with a neuro-degenerative disease as well.
Despite this, she managed to brush up on her English, completed her doctoral thesis, got married and became a mother.
Yesterday, the plucky 27-year-old became one of three winners of the inaugural L'Oreal Singapore For Women In Science National Fellowships, awarded to outstanding female researchers with the potential to contribute to and succeed in science here.
The other two winners are nanomaterials scientist Lam Yeng Ming, 35, of Nanyang Technological University, and biologist Melissa Jane Fullwood, 26, a researcher at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School.
Each of them wins $20,000, which will go some way to support their work.
Ms Minh and Dr Fullwood have similar areas of interest - the role of genes in disease.
Dr Lam's work focuses on tiny materials that can detect small amounts of environmental contaminants or gases.
The trio, chosen from 22 applicants, were given their awards in a ceremony at Chijmes yesterday.
Dr Christina Chai, a chemist and member of the selection panel, said: 'We were looking for people who are leaders, who are scientists and who will go very far.'
Winners had to fulfil other criteria: They must be Singaporeans or permanent residents engaged in research, although doctoral candidates and post-doctoral researchers were also eligible.
This year, the selection panel was on the lookout for those doing work in the life sciences.
Next year, the net will be cast for those in materials science. The awards will alternate between these two fields annually.
L'Oreal and the United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) are also giving out joint fellowships to female scientists in 40 other countries, including Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
While Singapore has no shortage of female science students at the undergraduate and doctoral levels, the problem is getting them to stay on in science beyond that.
Dr Lam, who is married to a British researcher, remarked that the perception was research leaves a woman no time for family, 'but it just takes planning'.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.