The International Research Enrichment programme at HKUST wants to inspire young scientists

The International Research Enrichment programme at HKUST wants to inspire young scientists

Wong Yat-hei learns about a programme at HKUST that wants to help students achieve their dreams of scientific accomplishment

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(From left) Student Raphaella So Wai-lam, Professor Robert Ko, and student Iris Leung Sze-ching take a closer look at their results.
(From left) Student Raphaella So Wai-lam, Professor Robert Ko, and student Iris Leung Sze-ching take a closer look at their results.
Photo: Dickson Lee/SCMP

Hong Kong is a famous international trade centre, so it makes sense that many students here apply to business school, in hopes of finding a lucrative career in finance.

But Professor Robert Ko, associate dean of science (undergraduate studies) at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) believes that the city's passionate young scientists deserve as much of a chance to pursue their dreams.

In the 2013/2014 academic year, the university introduced the International Research Enrichment (IRE) programme for students hoping to become researchers.

"Hong Kong is a commercial centre; it is to be expected that many young people want to join the business sector," he says. "But there are also high flyers who want to pursue science.

"Applicants [for the IRE programme] need to go through a group interview to demonstrate they are devoted towards scientific research. The academic requirement for the programme is demanding: the median DSE score of our students last year was 32 points [in the five best subjects]."

What sets the IRE programme apart from other science programmes is the emphasis on research. Over the four years, students are immersed in research, with professors and tutors serving as mentors to guide them.

In the first year, students can help professors with mini research projects during the summer and earn a little money at the same time. They can also earn extra credit by doing research during term time.

Students do not decide on a major in their first year, but by the second year, they choose their field of specialisation, depending on what sparks their interest.

In Year Three, HKUST sponsors an overseas tour of laboratories, so students can get a better idea of how things are done in labs around the world.

Finally, before they graduate, students need to complete a final-year research project.

Physics major Iris Leung Sze-ching, a second-year IRE student, said her mother had wanted her to pursue a career in medicine - but she has always wanted to be a scientist.

"I am so blessed that HKUST decided to launch the IRE programme. IRE offers me a better chance of becoming a scientist with its heavy focus on research," she says.

Leung's ultimate goal is to do research in cosmology - studying the origins of the universe - but there are not many opportunities to do that in Hong Kong. So after she finishes the IRE programme, she plans to go overseas to do a PhD.

"There is a small group of professors working in cosmology at HKUST. Maybe I can help them when I return from my studies," she says.

Her classmate Raphaella So Wai-lam chose to major in biochemical and cell biology. She was a biotechnology major before transferring to IRE this term.

"I went to high school in the US before returning to Hong Kong. I lived near the National Institute of Health in Washington DC and I got the chance to see research on lung cancer there," she says. "The experience inspired my interest in life science. I hope to contribute to medical research in the future."

Local institutes are often criticised as money-minded because they focus too much on business programmes. But the IRE at HKUST provides a ray of hope - and perhaps one day, a Nobel Prize winner.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
A career beyond banking

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