Q&A with CALS alum, aquaculture entrepreneur

Tuesday, June 19, 2018
UA Ph.D. graduate Loc Tran at his research laboratory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. (Photo courtesy Loc Tran).

Loc Tran was on a flight home to Vietnam hours after graduating from UA in December 2013. Not that Loc was eager to leave Tucson. He just couldn’t wait to get to work.

Less than five years after earning his Ph.D. in microbiology, Loc has built ShrimpVet from an unfunded one-person operation into the first private and self-sustained shrimp research laboratory in the country. Loc now oversees a staff of 100 employees, a central office and two labs, a commercial-scale hatchery, and a shrimp farm in and around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Loc, who developed his interest in marine life while fishing in lakes formed by bomb craters, received a young citizen award from his hometown in 2014, recognizing his contributions to an industry that has been asked by the Vietnamese government to reach $10 billion worth of exports by 2025.

He was at UA in June to participate as a guest lecturer at the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences Aquaculture Pathology Laboratory’s Shrimp Pathology Short Course. It was his first time back since graduation.

“It was so emotional when I landed in Tucson,” Loc said. “Everything is so familiar.”

Loc recently talked about his background, UA experience and the challenges of building a research laboratory from scratch.

What was it like growing up in Ho Chi Minh City in the 1980s and 90s?

When I grew up, at that time we didn’t have electricity, only a few hours a day just to watch television. But now everything is blooming. Ho Chi Minh City has more than 10 million people.

What brought you to UA to pursue your Ph.D.?

When I graduated from (The University of Agriculture and Forestry in Ho Chi Minh City), I was looking for a Ph.D. program in the U.S. and I had realized I had a passion for aquaculture, for shrimp and shrimp disease, and one of my professors told me, ‘You have to go to Arizona,’ and I think that was very good advice. To be very honest, after I chose Arizona, I looked it up online and was a bit disappointed; I could only see dirt, and Palo Verde, and cactus. But when I came here I realized that we have one of the best programs in the world working on shrimp — to have it here makes a lot of sense, to run research on exotic pathogens. After I left, you know what, I missed Arizona a lot because I’ve been to several universities around the world and Tucson is one of the most beautiful cities, the campus is so spectacular.

How did UA help advance your education and career?

First of all, it’s more than about the science, I think (Professor Emeritus) Dr. (Donald) Lightner’s lab is one of the best in the world working on shrimp pathology, but more importantly I also learned the philosophy of UA, how it is very important that we need to balance teaching, research, and extension; it’s not only how to make a change, but how to change people’s lives.

What were the challenges of setting up your own lab from scratch?

I would say it was totally crazy. When I first talked to Dr. Lightner and (Director of International Initiatives) Dr. (Kevin) Fitzsimmons, they were a bit unsure of what I was about to do. But I believe in young people; they are very energetic and so I could brainwash a couple of them to join my team. I knocked down my mom’s kitchen and started to build a diagnostic lab. It’s not easy to convince people that the industry needs something in Asia like Dr. Lightner’s lab, and it took me a while, backbreaking work, just to get money and do something. I was doing lots of consulting work until we could convince one seafood company to pour in a couple hundred thousand dollars for a 40 percent share of my company, and with that money we could buy more sophisticated equipment, and we could make some profit and keep rolling out.

What are the future challenges in your field?

I see the biggest challenges as sustainability. Let’s say shrimp farming starts blooming, and we don’t really prepare enough to counteract the pollution, for example, and for climate change, rising seawater, and competing for sources of water — that competition is crazy in the Mekong. And with the increase in farming we have more and more emerging diseases. So I think there are two very important things, that a researcher in our field has to form some sort of alliance, a formal collaboration with Arizona and with labs around the world, and if we do that we will form what I call the marvelous team. We need to have a good elite team in order to counteract new challenges.

After all the years of research, do you still like to eat shrimp?

I love it, yes! In fact, I had a shrimp cookout with my employees before I came here.

Contacts
Joel Badzinski
CALS Office of the Vice President and Dean
520-621-3729