New Faculty
Toan T. Nguyen Prager Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Toan T. Nguyen
Prager Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics

By Richard C. Lewis  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

If it wasn’t for coffee, Toan Nguyen may never have become a mathematician.

As a boy, Nguyen worked alongside his parents and older brother growing and harvesting coffee beans on a family-run plot in central Vietnam. Under an arrangement with the state-owned coffee company, the family could privately sell up to 49 percent of its harvest.

“Since I was small, I had an aptitude for math,” Nguyen, the Prager Assistant Professor of Applied Mathematics, said. “When we would go and sell our coffee, my family always let me do the math. So, I guess I was good at it.”

His second break in math came soon after he enrolled at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). There, a professor chose him to be part of an elite group to be taught advanced mathematics.

“I enjoyed it a lot,” Nguyen said.

A third break came when at his professor’s suggestion, Nguyen began corresponding with a professor at the University of Texas–San Antonio to work on math problems. He must have made an impression: The professor invited Nguyen to continue his studies in the United States.

Nguyen has been in America ever since. After getting his master’s at UT-San Antonio, Nguyen earned his doctorate at Indiana University last year, paving the way for his arrival at Brown.

At Brown, Nguyen will teach one class each semester: “Topics of Differential Equations” in the fall and “Methods of Applied Math” in the spring. That should leave plenty of time to devote to his research, which broadly embraces high-velocity and low-viscosity flow around solid boundaries. The concept has been studied for centuries, but “mathematically speaking, the idea is difficult to justify,” Nguyen said. “It’s been a big problem for a long time.”

The research has potentially far-reaching implications, such as designing airplane wings that are less resistant to turbulence. Recently, Nguyen and his Ph.D. adviser, Kevin Zumbrun, showed that air flow is more stable around an airplane wing dotted with tiny holes. Engineers at NASA and elsewhere are testing these and similar results by other scientists.

When he’s not teaching or engaging in research, Nguyen enjoys biking around Providence with his wife, Thanh Tran and diving into the cultural offerings around town.