A Happy and Harmonious Trio

Postgraduate students Byung Min Park, Zhongguang Yang and their supervisor Prof Fei Sun from Chemical and Biological Engineering demonstrate the importance of merriment and harmony in research.

Good Value for Tuition Fees

Born in Korea and raised in Thailand, HKUST MPhil student Byung Min Park has spent six golden years at the University since his undergraduate years. He is planning to spend a couple more years here as he applies for PhD studies.

“Then a high-school student, I was attracted to HKUST’s international ranking and its strong performance in life science. The University provides good value for its tuition fees: as one of the top universities in the world, its undergraduate tuition for non-local students is only 40% that of US universities,” said Min.

Min, who received a scholarship as a freshman in life science, initially focused primarily on his own goals to be achieved at the University. Soon however, he was thrilled to notice that there were many students at HKUST with superb performance, including top mainland students who came after attaining exceptionally high scores in China’s university entrance examinations. Min had also learned a lot in the previous years from fellow postgraduate students, all with extremely high standards.

Through HKUST’s signature Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Min had the chance to participate in the research of Prof King Chow, a life science professor who gave him the invaluable sense of how to do research and approach problems in research.

“Scientists want to know about the nature of things; engineers want to apply it” said Min. Upon completion of undergraduate studies in life science, he longed to achieve more at HKUST. He spent a year as a research assistant under Prof Fei Sun before becoming an MPhil student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBME).

It is during postgraduate studies that he has become HKUST’s awardee of the Asian Future Leaders Scholarship (AFLSP) administered by Bai Xian Asia Institute. His passion for Prof Sun’s research topic has now motivated him further to apply for PhD studies at the same university.

Apart from studies, Min picked up archery at HKUST. Then an undergraduate student, he used to play about seven hours a week and frequently participated in tournaments at the intermediate level as a member of the Hong Kong Archery Association. Back in high school, he was an enthusiast in cross-country running and a senior committee member of the school's Amnesty International chapter to raise awareness of human rights issues.

To him, the most precious venues at HKUST are quiet places where he can meditate, think things through and get inspired. These are precious moments which enable him to go back to his studies and work with more energy.

Postgraduate student Byung Min Park

An Extremely Enjoyable Campus Life

Zhongguang Yang, born in the Shanxi province, went to Nankai University in Tianjin for undergraduate studies in life science. Just like Min, he was impressed by HKUST’s strong overall and subject rankings, as well as Prof Sun’s research. He thus came to HKUST to pursue PhD studies in CBME. “I am curious to learn, through research, about things that I didn’t know before. I can never get bored with research here.”

Despite a busy life as a PhD student, Zhongguang spends on average one hour every day in the University’s badminton court with friends from different nationalities and disciplines. “I find campus life extremely enjoyable,” he said repeatedly. “My supervisor inspires us to do work without pushing us too hard. He gives us freedom: as long as I get things done, I can arrange my own schedule. I thus have time to do exercise in the gymnasium or see movies in town.” To him, work-life balance means making weekly plans and then cross-checking their feasibility closer to the date.

And he probably surprised his colleagues after an overseas conference when he started playing the piano in the hotel lobby with the sophistication of a concert pianist. Playing the instrument since the age of five, he had won many champions and runners-up in mainland competitions and had achieved grade nine at the age of 13. Now at HKUST, he continues to find time to play classical music on campus whenever possible.

Postgraduate student Zhongguang Yang

A Professor Who Refuses to be the Bottleneck

So what is it about Prof Sun’s research that attracted Min and Zhongguang?

Prof Fei Sun, an alumnus of Peking University (Chemistry), Caltech (Chemical Engineering) and the University of Chicago (Chemistry), has recently led his team at HKUST to create a new protein-based stimuli-responsive smart hydrogel. Prof Sun’s new hydrogel may act as a carrier for stem cells which are key components for regenerative medicine and can control the time and manner regarding drug delivery inside human body due to its light sensing function.

“The beauty of using protein to make hydrogel is that we take advantage of the ecological diversity of Mother Nature. It opens up new thinking about material design, material biology and biomedical applications,” said Prof Sun.

Collaborating with a biotech company on 3D cell culture, he hopes the technology can be commercialized in future. The team’s research has also been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) in June 2017.

Prof Sun has a sensible philosophy about research. “Good research is very often not borne from one single person’s mind; the best solution is usually out of our collective comprehension, no matter what problem or puzzle we are trying to solve. We know so little about natural phenomenon: this is often true about life science and biotechnology. Humility is thus the most important quality of a researcher.”

With the belief that the frequency of conversations a researcher has with his or her peers is positively correlated with his or her productivity, he encourages an open and bottom-up approach by engaging in two meetings with each of his group members every week.

Prof Fei Sun

A Flat Organization Encouraging Open Communications

“Like many US universities, HKUST has little hierarchy. This helps to encourage open communications on an equal basis. We can talk freely to seniors, fellow colleagues or students, and those from different academic departments or schools. This kind of academic freedom is very important for research,” said Prof Sun.

So how does Prof Sun view his role as a supervisor? “I act as an experienced guide to ensure that students are on the right track. However, I do not force them; it is about two-way, mutual inspiration.”

Min and Zhongguang agree that Prof Sun is most proactive in communicating with students, describing him as patient, interactive and always available. “I often get stuck and turn to Prof Sun about research problems, he always gives insights about areas I have overlooked or about how I can proceed,” said Min.

The two students particularly enjoy the monthly hiking organized by Prof Sun who remarked, “Hiking is a good opportunity for students to relax and maintain physical well-being. When we know each other better, we start talking about issues at the lab, about research and personal matters.”

Blue-sky Research in Hong Kong

Both Min and Zhongguang enjoy their time in Hong Kong but for different reasons. Whereas Min takes advantage of Hong Kong’s easy public transportation as well as the campus’ convenience and self-sufficiency, Zhongguang enjoys the University’s premium environment, both natural and academic.

They are definitely positive about encouraging their friends from home to study at HKUST; about ten students are already joining HKUST’s postgraduate program in life science each year from Nankai University, Zhongguang’s alma mater.

Prof Sun has enjoyed living in the city a lot. The only room for improvement that he yearns for is that junior faculty members have greater access to the city’s research funding to do blue-sky or interdisciplinary research.

As to the future, both students want to pursue further studies before they consider working for the academia or the industry.

Prof Sun’s future goals are more broad-based. “Be humble and curious. Listen and talk to people. Make sure our team members are happy: when they are happy, they deliver.”