Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Dancing Tuan

Tuan Q. Phan and his wife have a friendly, Facebook-ing, Scottish fold cat. During the little free time that he has as a professor, he enjoys non-fiction (“because reality is so much crazier than what we can imagine”), dances, plays with his 3-D printer, treks, builds circuits and reads the business news – which may explain his penchant for responding to students’ emails at all ungodly hours. Despite having published his first academic paper in high school (on detecting Factor V Leiden using air cycling PCR with DNA), Tuan finds Singlish challenging!    

Where did you grow up?
I was born in Vietnam and moved to the Utah in the US at 5 years old. My aunt was a “boat person” at a young age that fortunately made it. A family in Utah eventually adopted her and helped her to sponsor her sisters, my grandmother, my parents, and I. Having never experienced the cold, we arrived in Utah in one of the worst winters with only $5 for all of us. 
Although my father had a university degree and taught, he had to go back to school and worked as a fulltime laborer to put food on the table. Later, my mother also went on to get her master’s degree.  By the time they finished, it was time for me to go to college. So, I guess I was always in the university environment. 
After I did my undergrad at MIT, I had an international startup providing computer graphics solutions for mobile devices. Through this experience, I realized I could apply engineering and science to business, and found a fascination for modeling people and companies as complex systems. Thus, I decided to go back to school to do a PhD in marketing at Harvard.

Describe your research and its significance.
My research focuses on social networks and social media, both online and offline. I build theory on how information spreads through word-of-mouth, as well as use Big Data and analytics to find supporting evidence. Social networks affect everything in our daily lives from diseases, adoption of products, our lifestyle, and our social circle. My research provides actionable items for how businesses can use social media to drive profit and how governments can leverage these platforms to help people. For example, my students and I find narcissist users tend to comment on social media, but not necessarily buy products on fanpages. I also find individuals use their social network in cope with natural disasters like hurricanes. In terms of online privacy, although all users say they want privacy, their actions show that they only want the perception of privacy. My research combines social sciences and computational methods such as creating tools for image sentiment analysis. 
Although we have some beliefs that things happen on human social networks, we can now scientifically find evidence and quantify it. This has huge economic, political, health, and societal effects. For example, many peer evaluation activities, such as judging Olympic sports like figure skating and ballroom dancing or reviewing your coworkers’ performance, are greatly affected by social ties. This can result in “reciprocity” or even corrupt behavior. Aside from the substantive research, doing computational social science will change the way we understand psychology and human behavior.

Describe your experience as an SoC faculty member.
Although I did my PhD at a business school, I feel quite a home at SoC where students and faculty are not afraid to use computers as a tool. It’s been a fulfilling experience combining the “left brain” and “right brain.”
The SoC community has really become a second “family.” Students, faculty and staff have been warm, welcoming, and nurturing everyone to reach their full potential. My FYP and PhD students have been fantastic! I like the opportunity to work closely with them and see them develop. I learn so much from my students as well! 
Although the community has a lot of creativity, energy, and talent, sometimes the policies and bureaucracy can be a barrier to others from trying something different. I would encourage students to take more risks, do the best at something they find exciting and go as far as they can it!
What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I was considered a “slow” student up to fourth grade - in a special program for those who need extra help. By end of fifth grade, I was already in the advance program for gifted students.

At the Blackpool Dance Festival

Tell me about your competitive ballroom dancing.
I got into ballroom because of girls, of course! My mother used to watch it on TV. I didn’t really get into it until a female friend brought me dancing with her. I quickly realized that a 1:10 male-female ratio was in my favor, as compared to other “jock” sports where there are too many sweaty guys trying to touch each other. However, quickly I became obsessed about perfection and the theory of dance. Dancing is quite holistic – it’s technical, artistic, athletic and social. My friend who was captain of the Yale team noticed that the majority of their members came from the science and engineering faculties – his conclusion was that these nerds needed instructions to touch and interact with the opposite gender.  He is now a neurosurgeon. 
Actually, I chose MIT because it had both a good dance team and robots! Dancing, like any artistic discipline, requires technical proficiency before it becomes an art. One of the dance coaches was also a PhD student in computer science at MIT, and an international finalist! Lessons consisted of vectors, angular velocity, momentum, radians, and fluid dynamics. Another coach was a doctor that talked about the xiphoid process, iliotibial band, and fascia. 
Dancing was also not easy. My father always wanted me to focus on my studies and work, like all traditional Asian parents. Research has shown, however, that exercise, and dancing in particular, is good for the brain. With more things to do (work, school, dancing) and deadlines, you also learn to work efficiently and effectively. It’s a constraint optimization problem, which is nice since you also avoid over-choice and procrastination. For example, since I was almost triple majoring, I had business classes starting at 7am, EECS classes in the afternoon, then exams 6-9pm, dance practice 9pm-12am, then start-up work 12-4am, and rinse and repeat. 
We primarily competed in the “international standard” styles which included 5 dances – waltz, tango, Viennese waltz, foxtrot, and quickstep. For these, practices would be 4 hours a day, 6 or 7 times a week. We worked with our coaches 4 times a week. One of our coaches was in New York City, about a 4.5 hour commute each way from Boston. We would see him every week. In addition, we trained with weights 2-3 times a week, and worked with a personal trainer every week. My wife and I used to compete in 10 dances, but had to drop the Latin dances so I could graduate. 
Of course, some of the best moments were when we did well, such as placing 10th in North America at Ohio Star Ball. Besides that, our first trip to Blackpool Dance Festival, the Grand Slam of ballroom dancing, was inspirational. We danced on the same floor as with the best dancers in the world, and were judged by dance legends! Fortunately, we also did quite well and got in the top 96 round out of hundreds of competitors in the open amateur and rising star categories. We got to dance to the famous live band in a palace in the highlight evening event after almost a week of competing. 
Probably the best moment of all, however, is finding my wife and dance partner.  If you can work together through a dance partnership, you know the marriage will be easy. 
I met some of the most amazing and smartest people through dancing – many with little or no formal education, and made many personal and professional connections through dancing. I have great respect for dancers who have such dedication and passion, and who physically push their bodies every day. It is a tough life, even though many have other, better and more comfortable options.  
Although we are semi-retired, we have been helping to form the NUS Ballroom Team. As the academic advisors, we are happy to volunteer our time and share our knowledge amongst friends and dancers alike. With the team, we practice twice a week, and I teach 1-2 times. Within the first semester, new team members competed at the Singapore Open Dance Championships in November. My wife and I love to help nurture the next generation of dancers in Singapore. 
With the team, our friends and the help of the general Singapore dance community, we organized the inaugural NUS Open Ballroom Championship in January 2014. This was a big accomplishment since no other tertiary institution has organized a ballroom competition in Singapore, or even in Southeast Asia – and this, for a team not more than 1 year old. It welcomed over 60 competitors from Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia, and judges from the UK, Australia, USA and Singapore. It also offered a free performance for NUS students by the Asia-Pacific Latin champions. Keep an eye out for our event next year!

Quick-Fire! Most interesting development in technology this year?
3-D printers, Bitcoin, Omate smartwatch

Guilty pleasures?
Dancing? Vietnamese food (Pho, Banh Xeo, etc...) and Vietnamese drip coffee!

 Three ultimate dinner party guests?
Picasso and my grandfathers who have lived through so much.

Got ideas about questions we should be asking or people we should be chatting with? Email

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