Science seen in new light

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am


By his own admission, Professor Tang Ching-wan was an underachiever for much of his childhood. His failure to perform well in primary school meant he could not get admitted to a reputable secondary school. It was inconceivable that he would become a scientist, let alone the first Chinese recipient of the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, which he was awarded last year for his research into organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology. The award is second only to the Nobel Prize in terms of world prestige.

Known as 'the father of OLED', Tang knows full well the importance of having a supportive learning environment and freedom to inquire in the classroom. He says he didn't necessarily dislike problem-solving in school, he just felt pretty hopeless. That was until his father moved him to a Yuen Long government school after Form Three. He still remembers the patient, inspiring teachers who instilled a desire to learn in him.

'My English teacher made me a good student. Another influence was my physics teacher, Chan Man-ying,' Tang says, following a recent talk at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 'He gave me the lowest grade in the subject, but he was very inspiring. That really was the turning point in my life. I became very serious in my studies, whereas before that I had spent most of my time on the soccer field.'

Tang's academic performance began improving dramatically and he earned credits in subjects such as science and geography in the now-defunct Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination. He gained a place at the elite King's College for matriculation studies and was offered admission to the University of Hong Kong. 'If I had not gone to those schools, I might have missed the chance to do what I did in later life,' he says.

Instead of enrolling at HKU, he left to study for a chemistry degree at the University of British Columbia, in Canada in the late 1960s. This was followed by doctoral studies at Cornell University in the US. In 1975, he joined Eastman Kodak, where he stayed for 30 years, developing organic semiconductors and electronic appliances.

In 2006, he joined the University of Rochester as a chemical engineering professor.

Tang says his discovery of OLED came by chance when he was attempting to shine light onto an object through solar cells to generate electricity. Made by placing a series of thin organic compounds between two conductors, OLED is lighter, more energy-efficient and has a greater viewing angle than liquid crystal displays (LCDs).

OLEDs make possible the bright screens on mobile phones, digital cameras and flat televisions.

Holding a computer tablet he just bought that incorporates OLED technology, he refuses to take credit for the popular modern-day gadget.

'It took billions of dollars and thousands of engineers and researchers to develop this tablet. It took a whole army of engineers to produce something so beautiful. But the discovery of OLED took about 10 minutes. When I saw the light, I started questioning how it came out like that. I looked at the research that had been done before,' the softly spoken scientist says.

'I laid the foundation for how this device works, but a lot of the improvements were made by other people,' he adds. Tang's school and university experience gave him solid foundations for his achievements. The tremendous freedom he enjoyed at Cornell was a boon to his creativity, he says.

'In graduate school you have to find a problem to solve, and that's when you start to create things. You have to be able to do things independently. I happened to be in a research group that allowed me to do that. My professor would let me do whatever I wanted to do. We discussed the findings of my research and he helped me see through some of the problems to understand what I was doing.'

The broad range of conversations they had was also stimulating. The chats revolved around more than just science. 'We talked about politics, what was happening in China, differences between communism and democracy, and so on. I could see things in economics or personal relationships that could be applied to science.

'I began to question why Americans were at war with Vietnam. We had intelligent discussions and expressed different views. It helped with innovation - it's important that you are curious about what you see. You have to experiment. You have to wonder how things work.' It is part of the scientific process to keep asking and verifying, after all. 'Along the way, you will discover something. While solving a problem, you will find something interesting,' he says.

Until 2009, all Hong Kong students were streamed into arts or science classes in Form Four. But Tang says he would have appreciated a much wider learning experience himself. 'Luckily, I got a lot out of my school education, but I never learned music,' he says. 'If you concentrate on all the science subjects, you are much better prepared for doing a science degree later. But it would be good if you could have a balance.'

The new senior secondary curriculum being introduced in September is aimed at correcting that. It will give students a broader education. On top of the four required courses of Chinese, English, maths and liberal studies, students will be given a number of electives. These include integrated science and combined science.

The former provides a comprehensive and balanced education in various science disciplines. The latter involves a combination of two subjects: either physics and chemistry; biology and physics; or chemistry and biology.

Through workshops, camps and other activities, universities are doing their part to ignite secondary students' interest in science.

HKU's Junior Science Institute is running a series of workshops on topics from DNA and forensic science to genetically modified plants for students in Form Four to Form Seven. Polytechnic University launched a High Achievers Club last year to provide special programmes for outstanding maths students, which can lead to credit exemptions at the university. Polytechnic and Baptist universities have partnered with the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education to offer programmes in a range of subjects for gifted students. As the new curriculum does not provide as much depth as before in the sciences, universities are offering foundation courses for first-year students from September - but with a focus on interdisciplinary knowledge.

'We want to give students a holistic view of science,' says associate dean of HKU's science faculty, Professor Cheung Wing-sum. 'We hope they can know something about various science disciplines and build up their knowledge. Before, it was possible for students to study just one field. But now, it is not enough for them to know only one discipline. Scientific research today requires interdisciplinary knowledge. For example, bioinformatics involves biology, physics and mathematics.'

The last group of Form Seven students entering university on the strength of their A-level exam results will be asked to choose from courses aimed at deepening their knowledge. Areas being offered include statistics, physical sciences and life sciences.

HKU has encouraged students to undertake 'baby research' with local or overseas professors to get a taste of scientific work for several years. Some of these students are recipients of fellowships that allow them to spend a stint abroad or work here during the summer.

Research is very different from studying a subject, and can be inspiring. 'People who do well in examinations are not necessarily good researchers,' Cheung says.

'When studying for a subject, a student knows what he is supposed to know and do. But doing research can be like a wilderness, where there is no clear path.'

In spite of what a student is best suited for, personal interest matters the most. The recent HKU collaboration with the Science Museum to stage workshops for school students was made to foster such interest. Students watched the stars at night, built structures from spaghetti and learned to make ice cream.

'If students are interested in a field, they will read about it,' Cheung says.