Voeurn Yong Ann, a student from the remote district of Srei Snam in Siem Reap province has always been fascinated by robotics. Despite the unavailability of courses on the subject here in Cambodia, he never compromised or gave up on his dreams.
“After graduating from high school in Siem Reap, I came to study in Phnom Penh at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. In addition to learning through school programmes, I always made sure to spend some time doing research online related to electronics and creating robots,” Yong Ann says.
Instead he turned his dream into a reality by taking action and working hard. He was able to get a scholarship to Innopolis University in Russia to study mechatronics. The university is located directly east of Moscow near the city of Kazan on the Volga River, but it’s an 11-hour drive by car to get there from Russia’s capital.
“In Cambodia, this major is not yet available. But one day I came across a scholarship offered in Russia in the field of mechatronics through the Ministry of Education, Youth and sport,” the 26-year-old graduate student tells The Post.
Mechatronics or mechatronics engineering is an interdisciplinary branch of mechanical engineering that focuses on the integration of mechanical, electronic and electrical engineering systems – the exact sort of advanced technological knowledge and skills necessary for the creation of robots.
“The major combines all of my favourite subjects – mainly mechanics, electronics and computer programming. I thought this combination of knowledge has huge potential to be of use in helping develop Cambodia’s tech sector. And so after passing the scholarship exam, I finally arrived in Russia in 2014,” he says.
Living the life of a foreign student in Russia wasn’t easy at first. He says he had trouble adapting to the freezing weather that drags on for eight months of the year and is totally opposite to Cambodia’s perpetually hot and humid climate.
There have also been financial challenges. The monthly stipend he receives from the scholarship both from Russia and Cambodia is so little that his parents must send him additional money from time to time.
However, even with those challenging aspects, Yong Ann says his experience as a student there has been an incredible adventure and he says that any Cambodian student offered a similar opportunity shouldn’t hesitate to embrace it.
“My student life in Russia is amazing. I’ve really enjoyed every minute of my years here. I love travelling to different parts of this country, learning about their culture and reading their amazing literature and novels. Life here has a lot of meaning for me with tonnes of unforgettable memories and friends. Russia has given me not only academic degrees on paper but a fulfilling life in and of itself,” Yong Ann says.
In what seemed to Yong Ann like the blink of an eye, seven years have passed and he has graduated with both his bachelors and masters degrees from Innopolis, an institution that specialises in education, research and development in information technology and robotics.
Adding even further to those accomplishments, he’s now won a scholarship to pursue a PhD in medical robotics from a university in South Korea, with the hope that after he graduates he will be able to share his knowledge back home and assist with creating or implementing the use of robotics for medical purposes in Cambodia.
Having been admitted to a PhD programme in robotics in South Korea, Yong Ann will begin work on his doctorate this coming fall on September 1, and plans to spend the next four years there studying and working as a graduate student.
As a PhD candidate, he will likely be teaching undergraduate courses or assisting with research as he continues with his own studies while gradually composing his thesis related to robotics with a focus on medical technology.
Yong Ann says that previously he hadn’t considered studying medical technology and was always more interested in the development of algorithms for the generation and control of movements for autonomous robots with a special emphasis on industrial robotics and robots with locomotion similar to that of humans or animals.
“However, while studying for my master’s degree, I was involved in some research on mathematical models for legged robots. This research turned out to have a lot of connections to the use of robots in medicine and that showed me that I could extend my research to develop robots and devices that could help a lot of people who suffer from illness or injuries.
“That’s the main reason I decided to choose medical robotics as my PhD focus – the research output will have a direct impact in helping other people,” he says.
Yong Ann says he still has a long four years of hard work ahead of him and medical robotics is a very challenging area in the field of robotics because it requires a lot of funding to support the research since it deals with some of the most advanced technological equipment on the planet.
He says that in the four years it will take to earn his PhD, he expects to only be involved in researching medical robotics because actually creating a functional medical robot would take a team of engineers, scientists and doctors years to finish a working prototype to test and then it might be five to 10 years after that before it could be used in hospitals.
Yong Ann says that in order to be able to contribute meaningfully to research in his chosen field, he’ll need to acquire a lot more medical knowledge and understanding so that he can then adapt his technical skills and then try to combine them both in creating robotics with medical applications.
Though he is still in the early stages of brainstorming ideas and coming up with research proposals, he does have two research areas in mind already that he is considering pursuing.
“The first one I’m interested in is research on applying robotics and AI to assist with surgeries. The second area is that I want to apply the technology of legged robot locomotion to create a wearable device to support patients’ who have broken legs in their recovery or to help those who are disabled,” he says.
Yong Ann loves Russia and moving to a new country again will be challenging, but he is optimistic about the move and sees it as an adventure.
“I do like Korean culture, food and history. But really this is about pursuing my PhD and it’s less about the country itself and more about the research programmes and the university,” he says.
The university he has been admitted to in South Korea provides a multidisciplinary curriculum perfect for his goal of applying robotics to medicine with world-class research programmes that cooperate internationally with other top universities.
After he earns his doctorate in South Korea four years from now, Yong Ann already has some ideas about what he’ll do next.
“I am planning to pursue a research career in the medical robotics field. Apart from that, I would like to share my knowledge and help develop human resources in the robotics sector in Cambodia.
“Eventually, after finishing my educational journey, I will come back home and I hope to use my knowledge of advanced technology and help Cambodia’s healthcare systems with use of new technologies,” he says.
Yong Ann says he would really like to encourage Cambodians to study robotics and technology or pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers in general.
“It is a lot of fun to learn. It also has huge potential to help develop our country across many sectors from agriculture to manufacturing to medicine.
“What I really want to share with people is that if you dream big and work hard for it you will thrive. No matter how big the dream or uncertain the road ahead is, you will find your path if you forge ahead with your journey and start walking in the right direction,” Yong Ann advises.