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CityU physics: where regional connections underpin global research ambitions

21 Sep 2020 Sponsored by City University of Hong Kong

City University of Hong Kong wants to scale and diversify its PhD physics programme by recruiting a new generation of rising stars from all over the world

Photo of CityU Hong Kong and Oak Ridge National Laboratory physicists
Global outlook: Xun-Li Wang (foreground), head of CityU’s Department of Physics, pictured with three of his PhD students at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) in Tennessee, US. Working with SNS instrumentation scientist Douglas Abernathy (centre) and other international collaborators, the team demonstrated the existence of high-frequency transverse phonons in metallic glass for the first time. (Courtesy: CityU Hong Kong)

Ambition, agility, connection, diversity: it’s uncanny how often these themes are echoed and amplified in conversations with faculty in the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Physics. As such, the sense of shared and collective endeavour is hard to miss among senior CityU physics scholars and early-career scientists, all seemingly pulling in the same direction. Their goal is certainly ambitious – to create one of the leading centres of excellence for physics research and education in the Asia-Pacific region – and doubly so for a department that only came into being in July 2017 after CityU chose to create distinct disciplinary specialisms from the former combined physics and materials science programme.

Fast forward to the turbulent here and now – navigating the perfect storm of the coronavirus pandemic against a backdrop of ongoing political tension in Hong Kong – and it’s clear that ambition alone will not suffice if CityU’s Department of Physics is to sustain its fast-track growth trajectory. The development roadmap is certainly non-trivial, with a target of around 30 physics faculty members on board by 2027 (versus a current staff cohort of 21). It’s also the intention that postgraduate numbers, currently at 79, will scale significantly over the same timeframe to around 150 PhD students, while the number of postdoctoral researchers and research assistants, currently 30, is forecast to triple by 2027.

Think fast, move faster

With the world in flux, agile thinking and adaptive execution look like the “new normal” for organizations big and small, whether academic, governmental or corporate. Just as well that those attributes are reflected in the start-up mindset at CityU Department of Physics – manifest in an ability to pivot at pace unlike some of the bigger, more established physics programmes in Asia and further afield.

A case in point is CityU’s Science Summer Camp. This high-profile event, which was held back in July, seeks to woo outstanding prospective PhD candidates as they embark on their postgraduate studies within physics and other core research disciplines. In normal times, the Summer Camp would see international students attend a five-day programme of seminars, meetings and laboratory visits across the CityU campus. These are not normal times, however, and faced with ongoing Covid travel restrictions, CityU management successfully transformed the 2020 event into a two-day online meeting that engaged a diverse cohort of 40 students, all of them able to join safely from their homes in mainland China, Australia, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, the US and Hong Kong.

Photo of Sunny Wang from CityU Hong Kong

Beyond that, CityU Department of Physics appears open to further experimentation, flexing and aligning its approach to postgraduate recruitment to address the unprecedented uncertainty facing research students globally. Witness CityU’s fast-track consideration of prospective physics PhD candidates starting their research studies this autumn, opportunistically targeting graduates from Hong Kong and mainland China who are no longer able (or willing) to study in Europe or North America owing to the pandemic restrictions. It helps, of course, that CityU was ranked number one in terms of “International Outlook” in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2020.

“Nobody knows what the future holds just now, but one thing is certain: Hong Kong will remain a special city with a special role at the nexus between east and west,” explains Xin (Sunny) Wang, a CityU theoretical physicist who specializes in fundamental studies of quantum systems and quantum computation. “My group and the wider CityU physics programme are at the start of a journey,” he adds. “There are all sorts of exciting research opportunities here – as well as generous funding – for talented physics graduates who can help us to grow our visibility, recognition and impact.”

Sunny Wang exemplifies the relative youth of CityU’s physics faculty – around a third of the academic staff are under 40. After graduating from Peking University in 2005, he spent the next decade working in the US – a PhD at Columbia University in the City of New York followed by postdoctoral studies at the University of Maryland – before returning to CityU as an assistant professor in 2015 (he was promoted to associate professor earlier this year). “There’s real unity, energy and a spirit of togetherness across the physics faculty,” he notes. “Ultimately that means students benefit from a staff team that’s approachable, accessible and here to help.”

Currently, Sunny Wang supervises a team of six PhD students, four of them drawn from universities in mainland China, one from Malaysia, and the other a local Hong Kong graduate. In the medium term, though, he hopes to diversify that talent pool, adding one to two graduate students a year, ideally from the near abroad in Asia and perhaps further afield. “International collaboration is the engine-room of our future research success,” he explains. “It’s a virtuous circle. We need talented international students coming here to establish their research careers, subsequently reinforcing CityU’s reputation with their friends and colleagues as they progress and move on elsewhere.”

For Sunny Wang, those international connections, and the ideas flowing from them, are the lifeblood of his work as a theoretician – and indeed Hong Kong’s great strength as a regional research hub. “Hong Kong connects east and west at scale,” he explains. “Leading physicists and early-career researchers come and go through the Territory, sharing their work and their insights – like bees cross-pollinating a field of wild-flowers.”

Wanted: rising stars

Connection and diversity are themes endorsed enthusiastically by Shubo Wang who, as head of graduate admissions for CityU Department of Physics, is responsible for building the pipeline of prospective PhD students into the physics programme. Another faculty member on the right side of 40, Shubo Wang heads up a team of five PhD students and two research assistants working on theoretical aspects of photonics, including metamaterials, photonic crystals and optomechanical systems.

“The priority is clear,” he explains. “We want to increase the cultural diversity of our PhD students by recruiting graduates with high potential from all over the world, bringing in their unique research experiences, ideas and perspectives.”

Shubo Wang, for his part, reckons the pedigree of CityU’s physics faculty, and the staff’s extensive international connections, are among the big selling points for would-be PhD students. Four of the senior team are Fellows of the American Physical Society, while many younger faculty members have already established top-tier reputations in disciplines as diverse as topological materials, quantum computing, low-dimensional systems and laser spectroscopy.

The generous funding environment also helps, geared towards attracting the best overseas graduate talent to Hong Kong (see “CityU physics: PhD applications in brief”, below). The Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme is a case in point. This selective programme (there are around 300 recipients each year) provides postgraduates with an annual salary of around US$40,000. That salary is topped up with US$1700 a year for work-related travel, with supplements from CityU. 

Ultimately, claims Shubo Wang, the strong financial support plus high-class research facilities make Hong Kong a great place for a young physicist to establish their career and forge lasting connections in Asia. “Our job at CityU is to help rising stars to shine brighter,” he concludes.

CityU physics: PhD applications in brief

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