Physics demands discipline, but students are inspired by their research

Physics demands discipline, but students are inspired by the research that they undertake, writes Heidi Chik Wiseman

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 10:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2014, 2:42pm

Victor Lam Ho-tat says he is not a genius. Yet even Albert Einstein, a scientist he admires, might be impressed with the young man.

Only 18 years of age, he has developed a ground-breaking theory - a simple and effective way to compare the robustness of two similar networks, such as that of power cables and the internet. This will help avert crises and save lives.

Today Lam will fly to Poland and Canada to present his latest research into network reliability at academic conferences as the youngest ever representative of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

My peers opted for business degrees, but I went for something fun
Benson Yiu, student 

"Physics answers a lot of questions. If we stop all research in physics, humans will stop advancing," he says. "I have fun when I'm doing research."

Lam recalls reading cartoons about science when he was eight, and names various popular science books that he has enjoyed reading, such as Does God Play Dice? and those by renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking.

He was inspired by good teachers who nurtured his gift in mathematics and physics. Lam grew up in Shenzhen after his parents, both from Hong Kong, relocated there for work.

He won a gold medal in the junior section of the International Mathematical Olympiad in 2008, while he was attending the Second Foreign Languages School of Nanshan. By the first semester of Year Nine at Shenzhen Middle School, he had completed the secondary school physics curriculum.

His teachers taught him undergraduate level physics as part of a special programme.

He left Shenzhen for Hong Kong two years later, joining Pui Shing Catholic Secondary School. In 2012, he won gold at both the Asian and International Physics Olympiads.

HKUST professor Michael Wong, who guided him in the Olympiads, realised he was dealing with a special talent after Lam continually asked questions. Wong invited Lam's parents to apply for special admission into HKUST. At the age of 16, Lam was accepted by the university without needing to take a public examination.

He was one of 80 to 90 secondary school students who receive training for the annual Physics Olympiads by HKUST professors. Of these, eight compete in the Asian Olympiad; the top five compete in the International Olympiad.

Wong is the chief coach for this year's Hong Kong Physics Olympiad team, and chair of the organising committee of the 2016 Asian Physics Olympiad, to be held in Hong Kong.

"There is no lack of young local talents who are interested in science," he says. "Whether they pursue it at university, or choose something that promises more [job] security is another question. Parental influence is often a factor."

Another hurdle for students wishing to excel in physics is the self-discipline and hard work that it requires.

Lam's mentor, Professor Szeto Kwok-yip, commends the star student for his diligence as much as his intelligence. "Some students only hand in two out of 10 weekly reports, but he completed all the assignments I asked for," he says.

Physics is known for being one of the few tough academic disciplines with a heavy workload, says Benson Yiu, a second-year MPhil physics student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "When you see that people having an easy ride studying other subjects, it is tempting to choose less demanding routes."

Since A-levels were replaced by the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education two years ago, students who want to study science at Chinese University have more time to make up their mind. They are admitted into the relevant faculty under a broad-based admission scheme, encompassing 11 subjects.

They have the opportunity to declare their major during the four-year programme, either at their initial application, after the first year, or in the second year.

Certainly, the word "fun" pops out more than once when Yiu talks about his subject of choice.

"Most of my peers opted for business degrees, but I would rather go for something that is fun. Physics is such an interesting subject, but science is a very disciplined process. There will be many days that are ordinary, and nothing exciting happens. But suddenly, there will be a new discovery."

Professor Dickon H.L. Ng, associate dean of Chinese University's faculty of science, says, "If students are gifted in research, I encourage them to pursue graduate studies. They should try to gain international exposure to broaden their horizons, whether it is through exchange programmes, or full time study."

The faculty reflects a good mix of educational backgrounds, with PhDs from universities in North America, Britain and Asia, as well as Hong Kong.

But not everyone will go on to become a physicist or a university professor. According to figures from recent years from HKUST and Chinese University, about 70 to 80 per cent of science students enter the job market after finishing their undergraduate degrees every year. They are employed by businesses, schools, engineering firms and industries, social and public organisations, and the government.

Wong says: "The aim of a university education is to develop potential, train abilities and expand horizons. So the difference in job prospects for students of different disciplines is not that big."

To encourage more young people to follow their heart and pick something that truly interests them, Yiu feels it is important to let them know what it is like to study it, as well as what the future holds.

Yiu will finish his master's degree this year. He is part of a team researching into improving the emission efficiency of LED, an environmentally friendly lighting technology.

After graduating, he plans to start a new business with his classmates to develop a range of innovative products. He hopes to apply for various grants for business start-ups.

"We don't know if we will succeed, but I was inspired by a senior graduate who did a similar thing, and his company is growing. It is important for younger people to have role models, to be able to see that someone is not afraid of blazing a new trail."