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NEWS | May 10, 2022

Passion and Independence Lead NSWC Dahlgren Division Engineer from Vietnam to the United States

By NSWCDD Corporate Communications

Born and raised in Vietnam, Thao Tran spent most of her adolescent life living in a communist country. She remembers sweet moments like providing for her family, helping her mother grade papers and going to school, but she also remembers terrible times like her father spending eight years in the prison camp for high-ranking military officers who fought against the communists.  Attending college in Vietnam was not possible for her due to her father's military status. Tran knew this was not the life she wanted, even at an early age. As an independent and intelligent young girl, Tran set her sights on somewhere she could succeed.

At the age of 12, she expressed to a neighbor that someday she wanted to go to the United States. Tran would be given a chance to escape Vietnam three years later. Tran, her brother and father along with 93 others loaded into a handmade boat designed for 30 people to set out onto the ocean in hopes of rescue by ships on the international waterway. By the end of the first day, the boat’s engine had broken, and they were already running out of food and water. For four days and five nights facing storms and starvation, they were out to sea in a boat not meant for navigating open waters. They were rescued by a Korean fishing boat which took them to a refugee camp in South Korea. Tran was then moved to a refugee camp in the Philippines where she stayed for six months before heading to the United States.

Once Tran relocated to Washington state, she continued her studies by attending two years of high school before enrolling in a local community college where she focused on learning English. She faced many challenges due to the language barrier but continued to excel academically. Tran’s early passion for math and science led her to earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Washington.

She moved to Redondo Beach, California to work for TRW Inc. (now Northrop Grumman) designing monolithic microwave integrated circuit frequency multipliers and low noise amplifiers using gallium arsenide high electron mobility transistor technology. A later move to Seattle brought her back closer to her family and a new job with a startup communications company designing radio frequency transmitter and receiver modules. When the startup company closed, Tran found an amazing opportunity to work at Kwajalein Atoll as a lead receiver engineer, located in the Marshall Islands, home of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site.

When asked what life was like on the island, Tran had nothing but happy memories. Kwajalein is among one of the most remote spots on Earth.  One side of the island is home to one of the world’s largest lagoons, while the other side is the open Pacific. “It was a huge shock at first, but we loved it because everybody was treated like family. Every weekend we would get together and have potlucks. We would eat food out on the beach and the kids would go swimming,” said Tran. “We also went snorkeling right from shore, went sailing to Bigej Island on a friend’s sailboat and sometimes went to sea fishing on a rented boat. It was amazing because you didn’t have to worry about anything.”

After five years at Kwajalein, Tran took a position at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) with the Electromagnetic and Sensor Systems Department in 2008 as a radar analyst for multiple projects. In 2020, Tran moved to the Warfare Analysis and Digital Modeling Department supporting the Mission Level Engineering Branch to model predicted and exercised mission threads from operational and system architecture to capture deployment and warfighting capability. “I like continuing to learn and expand my knowledge base every five years or so,” Tran explained.

Moving to the United States was not Tran’s only goal. She has dedicated herself to building a Cao Dai temple in Fairfax County with her husband and other Cao Dai members. “This is one of my biggest dreams in life. It’s harder than getting an engineering degree,” she laughed. “After it’s done, I don’t know what my biggest dream in life will be. Maybe there is another dream coming.”

Tran gives credit to her family for her success.  Her husband and two children also work at NSWCDD. “My life turned out great. I could not have imagined leaving my home in Vietnam to come to the U.S., that I would be as successful as I am,” said Tran. “For me, it is the lesson my parents taught me: the sky is the limit, work hard, pray, come together, and appreciate what you have. I’m blessed.”