Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 2000
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JUNE 2000



Cleanness. Balance. Poetry. These are the forces that guide Trac Tran in his quest to pursue ever faster ways of compressing data. "Math, the way I think about it," he says, "is beautiful."
O N    C A M P U S E S

Journeys in Elegance
By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson
Photos by Mark Lee

The tiny fishing boat was built to traverse the rivers of Vietnam or follow the shoreline of the South China Sea. But this night, more than 120 people on board were trying to cross open waters--avoiding pirates, Vietnamese authorities, and the gods of mishap--to make it nearly 400 miles to Indonesia's islands.

Trac D. Tran was 17 years old. His brother, Tri, was 11. The year was 1986, and the boys were fleeing a failing country in the waning years of what was known as the Vietnamese boat people crisis.

There was so little room in the overburdened boat that Trac Tran sat with his feet hanging over the side. He felt the water up to his knees.

Simple and elegant. In a perfect universe, numbers should be nice, not ugly. Pi, for example, is an ugly sort of number: 3.1415926535897931 into infinity. Long numbers of its ilk create time-consuming hassles in the world of computing. Today, in Trac Tran's staked-out corner of that world, he pursues a finer sense of logic.

The year is 2000. In classroom 117 of Homewood's Barton Hall, Tran, now a Hopkins assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, paces across brown speckled linoleum. He tells his graduate students to avoid sloppy fixes.

Tran's students, many from eastern or southern Asia, are studying digital signal processing--a field integral to the electronic freeway of the future, wireless data transmission. Tran himself has invented a new way to condense multimedia data faster, cheaper, and with less hunger for battery power. Such advances will bring video, audio and images to hand-held Internet-linked devices. He has applied for a U.S. patent. He is 30 years old.

Wearing a white Oxford shirt and khaki slacks one Friday in class, the young professor goes over a tough homework problem, taking the opportunity to tap one of his favorite themes in engineering, and in life:

"I realize that the homework assignment was quite ambiguous, that I should have seen the problem coming and warned you in advance," he said, as he handed back papers to stone-faced students. "But I can also argue the other way around, that you're graduate students and that you know how to make the right assumptions.

"A wrong assumption gives you a wrong answer," he explains later. "If you improvise a solution with a little trick, all you did was discover something trivial. You have achieved triviality instead of finding something significant, something that can open a new research path."

Paths. Sometimes Tran wonders how he got from there to here, from a village in postwar South Vietnam, to a high school in San Jose, California, to his 12-by-12 office in Barton Hall.

"I should tell you, I'm an atheist. Not in the bad sense, but I don't pray for things," Tran says. "Whatever I want, I just go out and get it. But sometimes I say it's probably not me. There must be something or someone that is making this happen. The pieces of the puzzle are fitting together so nicely."

Perhaps the pivotal piece was a theorem he discovered in the 5th grade.

As a student in a Vietnamese public school, Tran listened one day as his math teacher explained properties of multiplication. When you square numbers that end in five, the teacher said, you'll have 25 as the last two digits. "I wondered what made that true generally," Tran remembers. "I thought, 'Does it apply to anything else?'"

So he started figuring and discovered something similar with two numbers whose final digits added up to 10 and whose remaining digits are the same--say when you multiply 76 and 74. Through a simple formula, one could take a shortcut and know the answer within seconds, in this case, 5624. (If you are interested in trying out the math, you add 1 to the first digit, and multiply that by the same number [7] to get 56; you'd then multiply the last two digits to get 24.)

A brilliant boy, but not yet a researcher. "I wasn't trained that if you discover something, you want to search hard to see if you were the first," he says. "I didn't even bother to search. I kind of thought maybe I had invented something great. About two years later, I saw the problem in a math book. It had been discovered maybe centuries before."

He would later tell the story in his application letter to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It was a nice little thing to look for. Simple but elegant," he says, noting that even to himself it seemed symbolic. "I want to know why things behave the way they do." Researchers, after all, need to be curious. The successful ones, ambitious.

"A bottle of medicine for seasickness, a first-aid kit, lemons, and sugar. That's what Trac Tran carried in a small nylon bag when he fled his native country for a new one. The trip by water would take seven days and nights."
Tran grew up in a cramped, concrete-block house in the small Vietnamese town of Baria, about 65 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. He shared an attic room with his little brother; they played in a front yard just a few feet across. For a while, the parameters seemed big enough.

But his parents saw their sons' world with an adult's perspective of time and space. His mother taught Vietnamese literature and kept college-level books around the house, including Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn translated into Vietnamese. "I gobbled the books up," Tran says. His father was a high school English teacher with a penchant for American history and geography, despite the war.

His father, Tram Van Tran, and mother, Phuong Phi Nguyen, understood the limits of their world. When the communists won South Vietnam 25 years ago this spring, a few years after American soldiers went home, local authorities ordered Trac's father to stop teaching English. Trac was six years old.

"We were told that English was a capitalist language, not a good language for communists," says Tram Tran, now 57. The government urged the study of Russian instead. "In reality, Russian is a language you can only speak to the Russians. If you know only English, you can go everywhere and use it." Within months, Tran was investigated "to see if I had anything to do with capitalism," he recalls. He was later allowed to teach, partly because the demand for English was simply too great.

Like many other Vietnamese at the time, the family faced scarce economic opportunities. Trac's mother earned only the equivalent of $40 a month teaching high school literature. His father says he did extra work, sometimes translating, sometimes interpreting "to get here and there a penny to make ends meet."

So they looked to their sons' likely futures. They taught them English, they taught them literature, they urged them never to be afraid to tackle the things most young people know little about. "We are his parents, we are his teachers," says his mother, now 52, who is mastering English. The parents valued the ideal of balance. Their children studied math, poetry, and art.

Early on, Tran's parents gained bragging rights. "Trac was good in scientific subjects. He was good in the humanities. Almost every subject, he was good at and in every subject he always ran first in his class or school. For 11 years in Vietnam he never ran second," his father says. "But even if he worked hard, he couldn't go far. Colleges in Vietnam are very backward. With his abilities, it was better for him to go abroad. Then, the only way to go abroad was to flee the country."

Sitting in their son's concrete-block office on the Homewood campus in early spring, Tram Tran and Phuong Nguyen tell their family's story. She is wearing a black and white print dress, he a professorial tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Trac's father has brought a new Canon EOS to snap a photo of his wife and son standing next to me. The older couple arrived in the United States just two months before.

The two talk about the night in 1986 when the family tried to leave Vietnam in a boat about as wide as their son's office and three times as long. Advised to separate from their children to avoid detection and prosecution by police, the parents--who already had launched several failed attempts to escape the country as a family--arrived at the prescribed rendezvous point after their sons did.

On that night, 70 people were supposed be aboard. Each family had paid the equivalent of $1,000 a head to smugglers, money they had saved from better days, gathered from relatives, and converted into gold bullion or jewelry. But chaos was the rule, and more people found out about the secret trip. Scrambling over the side of the boat, newcomers filled it before the Tran brothers' parents arrived. The boat captain, scared, took off.

Several days before, Trac's mother had taken the boys to a safe house by the ocean where the boys would wait with strangers. Trip organizers "would make extra arrangements for children because it is hard for them to keep a secret," Trac Tran says. "Children talk a lot, they run a lot, they make a lot of noise and typically they tell the truth. So they wanted control over the smart children."

His mother understood the risk of separation. The night they parted, there seemed little to say, Tran remembers: "She told me, 'Study hard in America.'"

"We were apart for almost 15 years," says Trac's mother, her eyes filling up. "I teared when I thought about him." "She cried," says her husband.

A bottle of medicine for seasickness, a first-aid kit, lemons, and sugar.

That's what Trac Tran carried in a small nylon bag when he left his native country for a new one. The trip by water would take seven days and seven nights. With his 11-year-old brother beside him, he tried not to think about being thirsty.

"There was water in the boat, but everybody just had one inch of water a day," he says today, holding his fingers about an inch apart on a cup of cappuccino at a cafe near campus. "All I remember is wanting water, water, I would have traded anything for a sip. But everyone wanted the same thing, so everyone saved their water." His mother had given the boys lemons and sugar to ease their thirst.

As the motor propelled the wooden boat further away from home, Tran was afraid. He had no visions of VCRs or MTV in his head. He was angry, young, and not yet a man. An 11th-grader, he was in the midst of studying for his semester exams: "In my mind, I remembered one constant question. Why do I have to leave my family and friends? I thought, this is so ridiculous. I have my own country. Why do I have to go someplace that I have no knowledge of?

"I've always been a logical person. I had tremendous problems with this," he remembers. "I want to plan ahead. I didn't know my strategy. I didn't know what to expect."

There were the pint-sized milk cartons he would encounter on the biggest plane he had ever been on; he needed to look around the rows to figure out how the other passengers opened them. His first vision of the United States: the lights of Seattle at night. "I thought, 'Wow, how can there be so many lights?'"

After having landed at a refugee camp on Galang, an island in Indonesia, Trac and Tri Tran learned that their uncle and aunt in San Jose would sponsor them. At the time, Vietnamese refugees were being granted political asylum in the United States.

His parents heard all the news piecemeal. An entire month had passed before trip organizers got word to them that their sons arrived safely at the camp. His mother had slept little. She cried again, this time in relief, when she learned that her sons would be able to live with her eldest brother and his wife.

After leaving home, Trac Tran wasn't able to visit Vietnam until 1997; for a long time it was illegal in that nation for such refugees to return. The parents exchanged letters with their sons, with Trac one every few weeks. His family had no phone. In Vietnam, they still operated under a different set of parameters than those found in America's technological era at the end of the 20th century. As Tran says, "I didn't have the luxury of asking my parents what to do with my career."

So he asked his calculus teacher.

A junior at Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, Tran had decided to focus on math. He says his English wasn't perfect, though he quickly picked up California speak: "It's better to do something you do well, rather than something you suck at."

He started to look around at American colleges. He was anxious because moving to the States had cost him a year in school. It was 1988. "I asked my calculus teacher, 'If you could go to any college, which would you pick?' He said MIT. I was really innocent, I thought, 'Oh, then let's try MIT. Okay.'"

Tran applied. He scored well on the college entrance exams--much better in math, where he missed only one question, than verbal. (He remembers his combined SAT score at 1280 out of 1600). But he was competing against students with higher total scores. He thinks his application essay may have helped: "I guess they read these things and see your enthusiasm." Finding out he'd been accepted, "was the nicest day of my life," he pauses, "careerwise."

Tran had liked San Jose; he had a good group of Vietnamese friends there. To his mind, he didn't encounter much prejudice from Americans whose war in his country remained a painful memory. "Someone driving by would yell, 'Go back to your homeland!'" he says. "That is expected. A minor incident."

At MIT, he truly found his career path--through a bit of chance, ambition, and strategy. The technological world was broadening the real one. To him, the answer to his future seemed artfully simple. And he made the right assumption. "When I got to MIT, everybody was studying computer science and electrical engineering. Again I decided to go with the flow," he says. "I thought communication and information theory would be the best way to go in the future. Society values information--at people's fingertips, anytime, anyplace."

Nonetheless, it was a bold assertion. The nation's foremost technology institute was the first place where Tran had even touched a computer. "I typed up my application letter on a typewriter," he says. His uncle, Phuoc Nguyen, and aunt, Song Ha Nguyen, worked hard--he as a technician for an engineering firm and she as a data entry clerk. Yet for many in the 1980s, a computer was a luxury. "We didn't have these fancy things," Tran says.

Then, everything started moving at cable modem speed. When Tran got to MIT, he sent his first e-mail to a friend on campus. "We put TEST in the subject area and TEST in the body," he says. "I thought, 'This is so revolutionary. This will actually one day eliminate post offices.' I could communicate with my aunt and my uncle and my parents back home." It was 1989. By 1994, he had earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at MIT in electrical engineering and computer science. Four years later, he earned his PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in electrical engineering.

While at Madison, Tran also started working with interactive Internet images in his free time, creating a Vietnamese literature, art, and history web page during the early years of the Internet boom. The page ( serves as an online electronic library, featuring Vietnamese poetry, short stories, song lyrics, sheet music, audio links, paintings, historical text, and artist biographies he wrote himself. It began as a tribute to his home country and a salve for loneliness. And he did it the hard way, writing raw HTML codes. "There was no Microsoft Front Page program," he says. The website relieved some of his PhD blues. By the time he was almost 30, studying in the United States had taken up nearly half his life. There were other things to think about. At Madison, in the small group of Vietnamese students, he met his future wife, Lan Kim Nguyen, who had also escaped the country on a boat.

Together again: Tran at home with wife Lan Kim Nguyen and his parents.

His parents, who worried that he was eating instant noodles at school, followed his progress by letter, and later by phone. In 1997, he brought a computer to Ho Chi Minh City, where his parents then lived, on his first visit home. He got them hooked up to e-mail. They would appreciate that he had grown into a man of balance. "If you are good at one thing only," his father noted, "when you are tired of it, you have nothing to do to entertain yourself. Trac told me that when he was tired of something he could read books that are totally different."

Trac Tran's Vietnamese-language web page has been visited by nearly 145,000 users. A favorite feature is the famous 3,254-line epic Vietnamese poem, Kieu, by Du Nguyen (1765-1820). It is Vietnam's equivalent of Homer's Odyssey, and on Tran's page admirers can use a search engine to find a particular phrase. With a friend, Tran also has drawn an Asian dragon; he plans to make sections of its multicolored body an encyclopedia-style link to eras in Vietnam's 4,000-year history.

In contrast, the title of his PhD dissertation: "Linear Phase Perfect Reconstruction Filter Bank: Theory, Structure, Design, and Application in Image Compression."

In reality, maybe the two worlds aren't so different: "Math, the way I think about it, is beautiful," he says. "From different angles, it can be art, it can be mathematics. As long as you get the right angle, you can see it.

"Poetry is compact, yet it has multiple levels and viewpoints," he explains further. "You read a poem and someone else reads a poem and they interpret it differently. The compactness of poetry makes this possible. I like things that are compact, something that reveals itself if you look at it from multiple viewpoints." An elegant sort of balance. An evident style. Before he even completed his final classes at the University of Wisconsin, Tran got a job offer to teach at Hopkins.

From different angles, math can be art, it can be mathematics, says Tran. I like things that are compact, something that reveals itself if you look at it from multiple viewpoints.
It was 1998. Tran already was being wooed by the corporate world, fielding high salary offers from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Xerox Corp. (He had already done internships at Xerox, AT&T Bell Labs, and other firms). Yet he carried his parents' love of the educational universe. When Hopkins called, he flew to Baltimore for a full day of interviews. A few days after he returned to Madison, he received several e-mails from Hopkins faculty impressed by his work and his outlook on life.

To find out more about Trac Tran's pathbreaking work in transforming the transmission of digital data, see "Playing the 'Standard' Game."
They could see that Tran knew what kind of grants to pursue, what he hoped to accomplish through teaching, how long it might take for him to become senior enough in his field to make a real mark, and the practical demands and limits of the computer science research he is pursuing. His unique compression method breaks with the norm--a "transform" that uses integers (nice numbers) to create faster data compression (see Playing the "Standard" Game). Tran recognizes that his idea must compete with industry standards already being established. But, in the overall scheme of things, he's ahead.

"We felt that the work he had already done was of a high caliber," says Jerry L. Prince, Hopkins professor of electrical and computer engineering. "When he came here to interview, he gave an excellent talk. He was--I hate to use the word--but mature is the thing. He knew what he wanted to do, and what he wanted to do were the right things. He had a well-balanced perspective."

Tran's parents now live with him in a new home he bought with his wife in Laurel, Maryland. The four-bedroom house (there's so much room, he says, he's not sure what to do with the fourth bedroom) is about halfway between the Homewood campus and northern Virginia. He has taken his parents to Seven Corners, where a precommunist era South Vietnamese flag flies over Eden Center, one of many business areas that cater to the large Vietnamese community there.

His little brother, Tri, 25, is now an electrical engineer in San Jose. As it ended up, they both attended MIT, their times overlapping by two years as they pursued degrees.

The world is at the same time bigger and smaller than it was when Trac Tran was 17 years old, his pants legs trailing the surface of the South China Sea. When he studied hard in America, he ended up joining a revolution of young scientists searching for a better way to compress and send the huge amounts of video images and other data being transmitted today--from computer to computer, laptop to laptop, and, if all goes right, cellular telephones to PalmPilots, to computer chips embedded in cuff links or sports watches around the globe.

His mother sighs as she looks back from there to here. From lonely days in Vietnam--when she quit her job to concentrate on the letters she wrote to her two sons--to a chilly day spent standing under cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C., on a field trip with Trac. Some may ask why, so many years later, she and her husband decided to move here, too. To her, the answer is beautifully simple. "I like the famous country where my children are working."

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson is a senior writer for Johns Hopkins Magazine. Contact her via e-mail at [email protected].