A  Physicist  who  Continues  to  Climb  New  Heights

What comes to your mind when we talk about a postdoctoral fellow in Physics? If you have the image of a bookworm burying himself in equations and formulae, you are bound to be disappointed. Dr Guancong Ma, a postdoctoral fellow at HKUST Jockey Club Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS), is a marathon and Trailwalker enthusiast who is also into deep-sea diving and professional photography. From the northern lights to diverse marine species, his photos show the colorful and exciting life of the photographer himself.

As his mentor-colleague Prof Ping Sheng describes, Ma is one of the rare talents who lives his life working hard and playing hard. “Totally ‘charged’ with energy after an adventurous journey, Guancong works extremely hard for a few months. When his energy level begins to shrink, he takes another exciting trip to recharge,” noted Prof Sheng, Dr William M W Mong Professor of Nanoscience and Chair Professor of the Department of Physics.

Agreeing with Prof Sheng, Ma elaborated, “Perhaps to the frustration of Prof Sheng, I actually plan my adventures before making plans about work. Fun is not something to be sacrificed.” The energetic scholar certainly sees play as an incentive for work.

A High-achiever with Strong Momentum  

Nor does Ma sacrifice his academic and professional achievements. Barely a decade after starting his MPhil at HKUST in 2007, the high-achiever became a postdoctoral research associate in 2012 and HKUST IAS’ postdoctoral fellow two years later. He is grateful to Prof Sheng as well as Prof Zhiyu Yang, his co-supervisor who inspired him about the value of theory application during his PhD studies. Today, he is the co-owner of seven US patents (with yet another one in the pipeline) and the co-author of 14 publications in scientific journals.

As a versatile physicist, Ma has been working on acoustic metamaterials and crystal, among other topics. He is also honored to work with Prof Che Ting Chan, Daniel C K Yu Professor of Science at HKUST on metamaterials.

Building on this strong momentum, Ma has recently made it to the news headlines with a breakthrough research. He and his partner in a team led by Prof Sheng have created a solid metamaterial with fluid-like property, which may eventually provide an alternative earthquake-proofing solution as well as improve efficiency of medical ultrasound transducers.The metamaterial, a composite of three solid materials, blurs the boundary between solid and fluid. It has the unique wave property of fluid, a property which forbids the transmission of transverse waves. Opening a new area of solid elastic characteristics, the research paper was published in the reputational journal Nature Communications.

Solving the Unsolvable

On top of having an absolutely rewarding ten-year journey at HKUST, Ma is happy to have joined the University at an opportune time. He was recruited into Prof Sheng’s cutting-edge team to realize what was impossible just not long ago. As Prof Sheng explained, there was revolutionary development in physics several years after the turn of the millennium, when new research on the centuries-old topic of ‘waves’ generated new findings that refuted major established theories. At that, physicists around the world had experienced what was almost like ‘liberation of the mind’. Many revitalized their interests in electromagnetic waves, while Ma took up the re-emerging field of sound waves.

“I am thrilled to be able to solve problems previously considered unsolvable, using known physics laws and traditional knowledge to achieve breakthrough that surpasses prior knowledge. This is where the excitement is.” Ma is referring to his other finding that water in solid and fluid states, once thought to be totally distinct, is now found to have properties with blurred boundaries. Contrary to former beliefs, solid materials can have properties similar to water.

Similarly, Prof Sheng has not lost the yearning for Eureka moments in research. “It is absolutely exciting to achieve research breakthrough, to see it being realized with your own eyes,” said the professor who led the effort in discovering superconducting behavior in the world’s smallest single-walled carbon nanotube which was widely reported in the press internationally. There were galvanizing moments as well when he and Prof Weijia Wen discovered a new electrorheological fluid with strong reactions to electric field. More recently, Prof Sheng again experienced stimulation when Ma in his team discovered an ultra-thin structure capable of absorbing sound waves with frequencies as low as 160 Hz.

“The excitement is long-lasting,” said Prof Sheng. “I often tell postgraduate students: Conducting research is not the same as studying. In the best scientific research, you do not know the result; however, it is precisely because we do not know the results that a topic is worth working on.”

While he acknowledges that over 90% of the trials in research and experiments may fail, there are always lessons to learn in failures ─ the clue is to be persistent and unafraid of failures.

Ma definitely has the enthusiasm, independence and persistence which Prof Sheng looks for. “When Guancong first came to me about his research topic, I responded, well it is okay but not the most exciting. Guancong went ahead nevertheless, ultimately achieving success. And I was wrong,” said the gratified professor with a smile.

Prof Mathias Fink

Mutual stimulation among top scientists

Other than Prof Sheng, through HKUST’s superb research platform Ma has had the chance to meet first-rate academicians around the world and build research collaborations. One of them is Prof Mathias Fink, HKUST IAS Visiting Professor and Professor of Physics, École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris in France. Ma and Prof Fink are now collaborating in the Acoustic and Elastic Waves Lab, which is part of HKUST’s Wave Functional Materials Lab.

“My mentors and research partners understand my personal and professional styles; we complement each other: I am into the experimental side of physics, and they are experts in concepts.” Ma noted.

At HKUST, Ma has had the chance to work with secondary school students as he acted as a core member in the training team of Hong Kong Physics Olympiad between 2010 and 2013. Coaching talented, local secondary school students in preparation for the Olympiad to achieve fabulous results, he also embarked on multiple trips with the Hong Kong team. “The great success of these students, many of whom became gold medalists, has brought me great fulfilment and joy,” said Ma.

As Ma speaks positively about working relationships at HKUST, Prof Sheng continues to be a good example of highly interactive and mutually stimulating relationship between professors and postgraduate students. This is what Prof Sheng always tells new postgraduate students, “In the beginning, I will walk with you, and you can ask me questions. As you continue to conduct profound investigation into the topic however, you will discover things that I do not know. ThenI hope to learn from you and you can teach me.”In research as well as in life, Prof Sheng is a good mentor who points out blind spots which students may have, such as possibilities of being distracted from studies and research in the internet era.

HKUST opening the door to the world

The University has given Ma the keys not only to the intellectual world but to adventures and explorations across the globe. Coming from nearby Guangdong, somehow Ma had never thought about taking up mountaineering, scuba diving or marathon until he came to HKUST’s hillside campus facing the sea.

Now, Ma is proud to say that he has hiked on every trail in Hong Kong, and more than once on many of them. He finished the first half of the 100km-Trailwalker in nine hours, but was disappointed to be unable to complete the entire race within 20 hours. Having returned from Mont Blanc in France just last month, he remarked that he would not be surprised if he would want to try Mount Everest one day. He runs half-marathons too, and has finished his third half-marathon in one hour 45 minutes.

Ma was inspired to take on scuba diving through interactions with HKUST flat-mates who studied marine biology. “It was like a sudden ‘illumination’─ yes, I can do that too!” Since then, he has had several diving trips and spent nights on‘liveaboards’ which are small sailing boats dedicated primarily to diving in remote areas with reefs. For instance, last year he spent ten days on such a boat and under the sea in Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, the ‘Crown Jewel’ and global center of tropical marine biodiversity. “The biodiversity in Indonesia is just unbelievable!” Ma exclaimed. Besides, he has had another memorable underwater tour in Iceland. “The water there is extremely clear ─ it has an underwater visibility of over 100 meters,” elaborated the exhilarated young scholar who admitted that he could talk about his adventures non-stop.

Needless to say, his flicker collection is full of photographs he has taken both deep under water and high on top of mountains around the world. They are of such high quality, the angles so sophisticated and the position of the photographer so distinctive that some viewers might mistake them for being taken by professionals on airplanes or by drones.

With such eye-opening experiences, Ma finds himself gradually changing from an overly-cautious mainland student who speaks up only when he is extremely certain, to a relatively carefree student who opens up.

An environment that facilitates research

Now that his world is remarkably expanded, how would Ma compare his hometown Guangzhou and his current home Hong Kong? Ma finds Hong Kong an efficient, well-organized and compact city. Its organization allows dwellers to make precise plans about their daily activities.

Likewise, Ma is impressed by HKUST’s physical environment which facilitates research. This is substantiated by Prof Sheng, “HKUST is like a mega lab: our compact environment, with most labs situated in a few buildings, helps shorten the cycle time needed to fabricate and measure samples. Our physics labs are close to those of other disciplines such as chemistry and engineering; this helps enhance multidisciplinary collaboration and inspiration. Many of our students, who later went to top-notch institutions in the US and Europe, say that HKUST has better lab environment due to its compactness.”

Passion is the key

As a postdoctoral fellow, Ma plans to pursue a career in education and research. So after ten fruitful years at HKUST, what advice does Ma have for other young scholars?

“For those who want to pursue research, they have to think clearly what their motives are. If they just want to postpone going to work or if they think it looks good to have a PhD, maybe this is not right for them. Passion is the most important,” the versatile physicist concluded.