The seaside city of Nha Trang, Vietnam, awakens with the sun at 5:15 a.m. At this early hour, fisher folk at Vinh Luong Harbour are already hard at work. Men unload trays of fish, squid, crabs, shrimp and other marine animals of all sizes. Rows of women in their boots and gloves sort the catch and pile up the trays to bring them to market. Through the throng and bustling rhythm of fish workers sliding and tossing their wares emerges Dr. Dang Thuy Binh. Unlike the jostling crowd around her, she examines and later buys some of these same fish at the market for the lab, not the kitchen. A genetics pioneer in Southeast Asia, she is diving into her passion for fish conservation with support from USAID.
“If you understand the biology of fish you can learn a lot. Looking at the teeth, you know what they eat. Look at the angle of the gill and you will know whether the fish lives in freshwater or brackish waters, inshore or offshore,” she said.A professor at Nha Trang University, Dr. Binh has a deep appreciation for fish that goes way beyond her research. It informs her views of the natural world and inspires her teaching. The first place Dr. Binh always wants to see when traveling to other countries is the local fish market. She believes that fish can tell you a lot about your environment.
In her hometown of Nha Trang, Vietnam, she noted the significance of the two local fish markets: at the large market you can find fewer but larger species like tuna, whereas at the smaller market you find more diverse catch such as grouper and lobsters. This tells you a lot about the marine environment and the fisherman at sea, she explains.
Fish are central to Vietnamese society and communities along the Mekong River, which contains the largest inland fishery in the world. They support the livelihoods and diets of over 60 million people in the region.
Dr. Binh is the Director of the Biodiversity and Conservation Group at Nha Trang University’s Institute for Biotechnology and Environment. She has devoted her professional career to the study of fish.
The Mekong River contains between 1,200 and 1,700 species of fish and is considered second to the Amazon River in terms of fish biodiversity. Roughly 80 percent of the fish in the Mekong River are migratory and depend on the seasonal changes in water levels. Many of these species must migrate a thousand kilometers or more upriver and have natural barriers, like waterfalls; however, most do not.
With the changes in the environment caused by human activities, Dr. Binh has seen many species go extinct over time. She appreciates intimately that in order to manage our environmental systems we need to understand them first.
“We see everyday how humans impact the environment. When I go to the sea I see people catching the fish. When I go to the forest I can see people cutting the forest. We need wood for our buildings and fish for our food, but people don’t worry about the impacts to the environment,” she said. “That is why biodiversity, evolution and population genetics research is so important. With that basic data we can use is to develop our strategy and policies for conserving and managing our environmental systems.
Prior to receiving a Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2013, there had never been a study of fish genetics in the Lower Mekong River. Dr. Binh recognized the importance of fish biodiversity in the Mekong and the grave threats posed by hydropower development. “The question I always ask my students is what is the tradeoff between development and ecological protection?” She undertook a baseline study to help inform the natural history of fish and their migratory patterns.
With PEER funding, Dr. Binh and her team developed the first fully functioning genetics lab in Vietnam. They have included other researchers from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to form a Mekong River genetics biodiversity research network. Together with their U.S. partner, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, they are collecting genetic data on fish populations along the river. Genetic data helps explain fish migration patterns. With this knowledge, they can assess the extent of development impacts on fish populations and help inform decision makers on future development projects.
As a young girl, Dr. Binh enjoyed literature and dreamed of becoming a journalist. But her family persuaded her to pursue a care in science, and it wasn’t until high school when she took her first biology course that she fell in love with the subject.
“Instead of writing news articles, I’m now using my scientific data to inform [others about] what is happening in the world,” she said.
One of Dr. Binh’s primary goals, apart from her research, is to give her students the opportunity to excel in science and be successful in their careers.
“In Vietnam and other Asian countries, many women keep thinking science is difficult. It should be men who work in this field. I think this is not true,” she said.
Dr. Binh is now a leading science figure in her community. Colleagues respect her work and her students look up to her as a role model. Nguyen Thi Hai Thanh, a PhD student at the Institute of Biotechnology and Environment, Nha Trang University, has benefited from Dr. Binh’s expanding academic network and technical expertise developed under the PEER program.
“In five years, I hope I can be a woman scientist like Dr. Binh who can get research grant to tackle environmental issues in Vietnam,” she said. “For now, I can say that working in Dr. Binh’s lab under the PEER funding is the best thing that happened in my academic career.”
Dr. Binh sees a bright future for the young researchers. “My students are like my children.” And like a good parent or mentor, she plans to devote herself to teaching, transferring her expertise to the next generation of geneticists.