SOTY 2015: Advice that's actually useful, and why science is the way of the future

By Ariel Conant

Winning Student of the Year isn't easy, but judge Allen Ma says you should focus on subjects that are useful

By Ariel Conant |

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Students build DNA models in one of HKSTP's workshops, "Code of Life".

It's common for students to hear the same standard, clichéd advice: "dream big", "follow your dreams", and "reach for the stars." But Student of the Year judge Allen Ma has something a bit different to add - "be practical".

The CEO of Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) and a judge for the Science and Maths category of the annual awards knows a thing or two about both big dreams and practical applications, and has seen plenty of students achieve both. HKSTP has several programmes which encourage science exploration from students at all levels.

"We are looking to nurture talents, in this case technology talents," Ma says. "When someone has this kind of crazy idea or brilliant idea - sometimes you can't tell the difference, it could be crazy or it could be brilliant - they need to find somebody to help them realise their dream."

And with all the big and sometimes crazy ideas Ma has heard from students through both SOTY and HKSTP, he says it is important to strike a balance between creative innovation and practical application. And part of this means being able to see the benefit of patience and long-term goals.

"The most common mistake made by students today is that they are too focused on the short term," Ma says, "rather than doing something that's really going to benefit them in the long run."

Ma says he sees many students grabbing for good marks through easy classes, rather than challenging themselves with harder courses that will pay off with knowledge that would be useful for a future career.

"Your objective should be to learn something that's going to be important for your future," says Ma. "Take the long-term view. Don't spend too much time focusing on the short-term things; you should be looking out for your future."

Allen Ma is amazed by post-internet students' abilities.
Photo: HKSTP

And for secondary school students, Ma says this means having a broad understanding of the world around them, especially as it relates to Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (Stem) disciplines.

"My suggestion for secondary students is that they need to make sure they understand the exciting world of science and technology," he says. "The most important thing they need to understand is that human civilisation cannot make any progress if we do not invest into Stem and develop new things based on Stem."

Ma envies students now. "In the post-internet world, everyone has free access to knowledge," he explains. So when a student wants to explore a new topic or learn a new subject now, it's just a mouse-click away. "That's very easy, and means lots of free information."

And Ma sees many students making the most of this advantage. "I think a lot of students today have this broader, sometimes more international perspective," he says. "When I was that young, I don't think I understood the planet that way."

This broad understanding of society and the world means Ma sees many strong students using their knowledge to help others. And for him, these are the students that really stand out from the crowd, as they're making the connection between their academic disciplines and how they fit into the world around them. "They don't just study, they're not just scholars," he says. "They are good scholars, but also good sports players or good musicians, for example, but they also give back to society. That's what impresses me the most."

But even if he were a student now, Ma's not sure he would be able to stand up against the contenders for SOTY.

"They're so bright!" he exclaims. "There's no way I could measure up to their brightness," he adds, laughing.