NGUYỄN ĐẮC KHOA: Professional singer and plant pathologist in Vietnam

Khoa in field

By Vibeke Quaade

Can Tho, Vietnam/Copenhagen, Denmark. A few minutes into our Skype conversation, it becomes quite clear that Nguyễn Đắc Khoa does not shy away from following unorthodox and unpredictable routes to reach his goals.

I am very happy as a scientist, I am very happy as a singer, he says.

Singer since elementary school
While many others take up student jobs as waiters or receptionists, Khoa chose to sing. Having performed since he was four at a music center for children of his home city, singing was the obvious choice to supplement his income while studying. It was not planned that way, but by the time Khoa reached university level he had became a household name at the theatres and clubs of his home city Can Tho in Southern Vietnam. He was also invited to perform at regional and national level.

Being a singer was an unorthodox student job and great fun, but not a career path for life. Today I only use singing as a way to relax or as my contribution to an event, the 38-year-old scientist says.

PhD in Denmark not planned
Yet, the ability to follow unorthodox and unpredictable paths has remained with Khoa. He did not make a formal application for the PhD post in Denmark. When the team of the Danida funded project “Integrated disease and nutrient management in intensive rice production systems” came to Vietnam in 2007, Khoa was assigned to take care of the team’s logistics.

The research team was impressed with Khoa. They encouraged him to sit for the PhD candidate interviews. With a Master degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from University of the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute, Khoa comfortably answered the questions. He was selected. Shortly after, he departed for Copenhagen to pursue a PhD in Plant Pathology working in bio-control of rice diseases.

I was fortunate, but also a bit unprepared when I got the PhD scholarship. I had only a short time to get ready to go abroad for several years, he says and laughs. He hastens to explain that he soon felt at home in Denmark:

Once I landed in Denmark, immediately I felt at ease. Denmark is a peaceful country with friendly and frank people. The Danish education system is among the highest ranking systems in the world, he says.

Nguyen Dac Khoa på cykel
Danida Fellows at bike trip organised by Danida Fellowship Centre. Nguyễn Đắc Khoa is second from the right.  

Candid, professional Vietnamese-Danish collaboration
At the Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen, Khoa found himself in a working environment of inspiring, candid collaboration. His voice is full of warmth and enthusiasm when he explains that the achievements of the project wouldn’t have happened without the collaborative and forthright exchanges.

I would hear “No”, “No”, “No” so many times during our discussions. No uttered by professors, team members and students. I was not used to this kind of direct exchange, but I soon figured that being forthright and direct was not impolite, but rather a useful method while collaborating. By being frank we made use of the different team member’s knowledge and strengths, he explains, stressing the “No” in a loud voice full of humour each time he repeats it.

Plant extracts to control rice diseases
And indeed the outcomes of the collaborative research project between Can Tho University in Vietnam and University of Copenhagen in Denmark are important.

One of the most serious rice diseases worldwide is called sheath blight. It is difficult to control, Khoa explains. Widespread use of chemical pesticides to control sheath blight has proved to be insufficient and harmful to the eco-system.

However, the research team proved that there are biological means to control the disease. The scientific experiments they did in Vietnam and analysed at the lab in Denmark showed that extracts of different weeds are useful to control the disease.

The bio control methods to prevent the wide spread rice disease x are applicable in any tropical developing country in Asia, Africa or Latin America.
The bio control methods to prevent widespread rice diseases are applicable in any tropical developing country in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Methods of bio control using plant extracts to prevent rice diseases are of utmost importance especially for small-scale farmers. It means that the remedy to keep the farmer’s crops healthy are in their own hands, and not in the hands of companies offering them expensive chemicals on commercial terms, says Khoa.

He emphasises that the bio control methods are applicable in any tropical developing country in Asia, Africa or Latin America. But that it will take extra funding for a new phase of the project to roll it out in a new stage.

I hope it will be possible to raise funds to continue the project and transfer the technology to subsistence farmers, he says.

Khoa in the lab with students
Back in Vietnam Nguyễn Đắc Khoa encourages his students to be open and frank. 

“No” as a teaching method in Vietnam
Back in Vietnam as Lecturer and Deputy Head of the Department of Molecular Biotechnology, Khoa encourages his students to make use of the open, frank methods of team interactions that he learned in Denmark.

If they don’t speak up, nobody knows what they think, nobody is aware of how they can contribute. I tell my students that if they want to excel, they have to learn how to be forthright and to say yes and no when they mean it, says the singer now Doctor of Philosophy in Plant Pathology.

Vibeke Quaade is Senior Communications Advisor specialised in international development. She helps Danida Fellowship Centre setting up Danida Alumni Network. Email:,

Despite being more than 10,000 kilometres apart, Professor Tine Gammeltoft and  Danida alum Dr Nguyen Thi Thuy Hanh’s lives and careers are deeply intertwined.

Danida alumni and former DTU student works to develop and improve the aquaculture industry back in Tanzania as well as in Denmark. In 2015, he graduated with the MSc Programme in Aquatic Science and Technology at DTU. Since then, he has been employed as a scientific assistant at DTU Aqua in 2017 and in 2020.
Nepal is one of the countries hardest hit by earthquakes. Nabin Joshi uses what he learnt in Denmark to build houses that remain standing when catastrophe strikes.
"I really believe in the power of innovation as a way of contributing to a positive and balanced evolution of the world" says Jaime Andrés Peña, Danida Alumni, sustainable development entrepreneur and team coordinator of the Danida Alumni Network Colombia.
Olman Segura-Bonilla, Danida alumni and former Cabinet Minister of Labor and Social Security of Costa Rica is a first mover and fierce believer in sustainable development economics. His impressive career and Costa Rica’s path of development are closely interlinked.
By applying a gendered lens and working within the multilateral forest governance framework of REDD+, Hao’s PhD explored the extent to which a local indigenous community in the Central Highlands had access to productive land such as wet rice fields, coffee land and forests.
It is a passion for science and a scientific approach to problem solving that has driven Moses Mukota throughout his academic and professional career. He completed his Danida Scholarship and the course ‘Water Sector Governance - the Danish Model’ in 2018.
Seth Aning started his financial career at Standard Chartered Bank in 2007. Four years later he left Accra to pursue an MBA at Copenhagen Business School - a decision that would not only accelerate Seth's career, but also alter his view of the corporate world and his role within it.

I believe that Africa’s fastest route to social and economic transformation is through entrepreneurship, says Patricia Jumi, Danida Alumni and Executive Director and founding partner of GrowthAfrica. Patricia Jumi holds an MBA from Copenhagen Business School, which she completed in 2007 after receiving a Danida Fellowship for one year.

When Hazem Hafez Ragab received an email that urged him to apply for a Danida Fellowship and a full-time MBA, he thought it was a hoax. But it was real, and the MBA made him realize that leadership starts with self-awareness.
Non-communicable diseases are rapidly spreading in Zanzibar as in the rest of the world. Danida alum Omar Mwalim uses his Danish connections to try to prevent a further escalation.
“We ought to mobilize homemade African science to inform long term, sustainable solutions to African problems”, says the internationally recognized scientist and Danida alumni, Cheikh Mbow. Two years ago, he became Executive Director of the Washington, D.C. based organisation START International.
The time I spent as Danida Fellow was so valuable. My first experience of universal health coverage was in Denmark, Dr Tedros Adhanom, WHO Director-General said in his acceptance speech for the Danida Alumni Prize 2017. The award ceremony was part of Danida Fellowship Centre's 25 years celebrations in Frederiksberg.
The recent war in Northern Uganda was all-encompassing destructive. To heal the wounds and move forward, Psychologist and Danida alumni Henry Oboke has created a small army of Village Helpers. They provide basic problem-solving therapy and help to self-help at household level.
The bi-annual Livia Peace Price 2016 was awarded to William Ongoro for acting bravely and wisely in the painful and violent conflicts of South Sudan.