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NDEE Champions: Alumnus Khanh Pham

Written by: Leslie Lestinsky

Khanh PhamWhen Khanh Pham was a young boy in Saigon, engineering bird cages with his family, he wasn’t dreaming of someday engineering satellites for the Department of Defense of the United States of America. 

Khanh’s grandparents kept watch over him and his three siblings in his parents’ absence. Their alliance to the South Vietnamese government had landed them in North Vietnam labor concentration camps in “New Economic Regions” of post-war Vietnam.

In 1991 the Pham family came to the United States, under the Humanitarian Operation. With support from the Catholic Church, they eventually settled in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Even though Khanh was a sophomore electrical engineering student at Ho Chi Minh University, he had to start over at Lincoln High School. He prevailed and simultaneously earned a degree in applied sciences in electronic systems technology from Southeast Community College. He then applied and was accepted to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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Khanh with PhD advisor, professor Sain (left) and undergrad advisor, former Notre Dame professor and dean, Stanley Liberty (right)
Khanh was mentored there by former Department of Electrical Engineering professor and Engineering dean, Stanley Liberty. Professor Liberty–a “triple-domer”–saw much promise in young Khanh. He encouraged him to keep pursuing his electrical engineering education. Professor Liberty reached out to a good friend and colleague, professor Michael Sain.

Khanh’s next stop was at the University of Notre Dame to complete his PhD. He focused his work on advanced concepts of cumulant-control feedback designs, including post-design analysis. His approach to control system design is still held in high regard as one of the few methods available to exploit the benefits of feedback and performance uncertainty in stochastic dynamical systems.

Thanks to Department of English professor Noreen Deane-Moran, Khanh got comfortable with the English language while at Notre Dame. English wasn’t the only thing Khanh picked up in Noreen’s course.

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Khanh with wife Huong, receiving the 2019 Arthur Flemming Award
There was a beautiful and intelligent woman–from Hanoi, Vietnam–in that class that caught his attention. Turns out, love would trump the stark contrast and conflict of their family’s pasts.  

Khanh was in a rush to get married. Professor Sain warned, “Aren’t you putting the cart before the horse a bit? You’ve got a PhD to finish here.” Khanh replied with, “I can find any job anytime. Finding the right person to spend your life with, that is rare.”

Professor Deane-Moran remembers Khanh with fondness, “He is one of the most honest, gentle, intelligent, and yet resolute human beings I’ve known. I treasure memories of Khanh and Huong (wife) and take joy in their happiness.  He has had the strength and generosity to follow his road, in research, love, and life.”

 

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Khanh with the Pham family at ND graduation
After graduation in 2004, Khanh went on to work for the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL). He is currently a senior aerospace engineer in the Space Vehicles Directorate sector of the AFRL.

During his 15-year career, he has earned several accolades. One of them being the Arthur Flemming Award, this year.

Khanh is the only Asian-American to have received this award for outstanding federal employees, demonstrating exceptional civil service. It is recognized by the Office of the President of the United States, and has also been bestowed upon Neil Armstrong and Elizabeth Dole, to name a few.

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Khanh receiving the 2019 SASE Award
Most recently, Khanh won–for the second time–a Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers (SASE) award. In 2018, he won Engineer/Scientist of the Year for the Government Category. This year he won the Personal Achievement Award, which he was presented with earlier this month.

SASE celebrates diversity and emphasizes the importance of recognizing professionals that positively impact their community through civil service.

“From the day I was hired at AFRL, I have been leveraging Asian culture to advance the AFRL mission,” explains Khanh. “It is important to acknowledge the contribution of minorities and bring attention to the levels of diversity within the science and engineering fields. There is a need for multiple perspectives, and often that can be supplied by those of diverse ethnic backgrounds.”

Khanh also serves his community and profession by organizing the Air Force Summer Faculty Fellowship program and America’s Seed Fund.

“I am honored to be able to serve, represent, and motivate a cadre of 100 plus incredible and outstanding Asian American faculty and entrepreneurs,” reflects Khanh.  “This cohort represents the growth and development of future key leaders and scientists.”

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Khanh demonstrating for racial and gender equality with local AAPI community.
As I progress in my career, I continue to aspire to advocate for the acceptance of cultural differences,” shares Khanh. “I will continue to capture opportunities to gain experience in leading diverse teams of technical professionals across multiple disciplines and cultures.”