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Interview Series with HLMA Winners – Mathematics Unlocks Infinite Possibilities for the Future

Mathematics is captivating, not only because of the satisfaction from conducting research, but it also allows you to explore the myriad of infinite possibilities through logical reasoning. A good number of people even started studying mathematics from a young age and benefited from a solid foundation of the subject knowledge, opening up a sea of career opportunities and forging their own unique path.

In this interview, Connections meets with Dr. Kero Lau, the Bronze Award winner in 2004 Hang Lung Mathematics Awards (HLMA), and Dr. Jun-Hou Fung, who won an Honorable Mention in 2008 HLMA. Both are currently working at universities abroad, and they agree that their experiences in mathematics research in secondary school honed their skills in mathematics and sciences, profoundly benefiting their later engagement in scientific research.

C: Connections
L: Kero Lau
F: Jun-Hou Fung

C: Can you tell us about your current job? How does it relate to mathematics?

L: I’m currently an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, focusing on theoretical quantum optics and quantum information research. Quantum physics on the surface appears abstruse and difficult in the eyes of laymen, but actually its principles can be applied to many technologies around us, such as the advancement of the processing power of computers, the speed of information transmission, the sensitivity of probes and sensors, etc. If we want to break through the limits of these technologies, we ultimately have to rely on quantum sciences to explore the wildland technological boundaries. Learning math from a young age has equipped me with the tools and methods to handle complex quantum physics problems.

F: I’m now working on genomics-related research, in particular single cell sequencing analysis at Columbia University in the U.S. Through data analysis in areas such as genomic sequencing, genetic mutation, central nervous system and cytopathies, we hope to understand more about the causes of dementia, cancers, etc., in the quest to develop more effective drugs and more general therapies such as personalized medicine. By the looks of it, my research seems to have nothing to do with math; the truth is, I didn’t even study biology in secondary school! Yet I’m now applying data analytics techniques from what I’ve learned in math class in school.

C: How do you foresee your research will impact on the life of humans in the future?

L: I’m deeply engrossed in quantum physics research, and it’s not just to satisfy my interest and curiosity in the subject. The quantum technology gives us a real chance to push beyond the boundaries of today’s technologies and improve the lives of humans to make greater contributions to mankind. I hope my research can bring about technologies that can make the world a better place.

F: I acquired my logical and analytical abilities from math training, which has given me the knack to conceptualize theories from different subjects. In other respects, I enjoy exploring different disciplines with my math knowledge more than limiting myself to just one domain. Just imagine the joy and satisfaction if you are the first among seven billion people in the world to discover something new and unique. The satisfaction is beyond description. I would be so proud to be able to contribute to the collective wisdom and civilization of humanity.

C: Your achievements are rooted in mathematics. Why did you join the HLMA competition? What have you gained from it?

L: In the summer before I entered university, I conducted for the first time a serious mathematics research study under the guidance of Ms. Wong, a teacher from my alma mater – Sha Tin Government Secondary School. In the process of exploration and research, I realized mathematics is truly ubiquitous. Everything around us has something to do with it. In that study, our team chose the folk game “Ghost Leg” as our research topic and explained the game’s logic, probabilities, and variations through mathematical methods. Hong Kong students generally are more exam-oriented owing to the structure of the local education system, so undertaking a research project is a whole new experience for them. There is no right or wrong in research. Instead, researchers place emphasis on whether the process is logical and whether it is readily comprehensible by others. You will gain brand-new perspectives if you approach new ideas and exchange of views without preconceptions.

F: I worked solo during the HLMA competition and later on my PhD dissertation. Only after spending an extended amount of time in research did I realize that mathematical and scientific research is not an individual endeavor, but a hard-earned, collaborative product. It took me some time to struggle with the dissertation topic, but it was much less fruitful than a ten-minute conversation with my supervisor and other members of the research team! I believe the HLMA is offering this exact opportunity for secondary school students to team up with others to collaborate, exchange ideas and fight towards a common goal, from which one can derive greater inspiration from their peers.

C: Was there someone special in your life that inspired or enlightened you?

L: Back in high school, my math and physics teachers gave me lots of freedom for exploration. That was also why I decided to pursue further studies in physics. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, also inspired me with the idea that communication is of utmost importance regardless of industry. The former CEO of Apple placed a very high value on customer communication and highly understood consumer needs. One of his business philosophies was that he would launch products that his employees would like to buy. Applying this idea to academic research, we often focus, albeit unconsciously, on the drafting of technical details but overlooked the explaining to readers the research process and results clearly. That’s why I constantly remind my students that a responsible researcher cannot work hard alone merely to satisfy his or her curiosity but communicating the results effectively and raising the interests of others are just as important too.

F: When I first entered the University of Chicago, I have not committed to studying mathematics because I was also interested in the economics courses. But the courses I took with Professor Paul Sally in my first year influenced me to fully embrace mathematics during my undergraduate and later graduate studies. At that time, he was nearly 80 years old and not in a good physical shape; he had lost half his eyesight and had mobility limitations, and had to resort to recognizing students by their voices in class. However, despite facing such obstacles, he insisted on continuing with his research and teaching, which I admire a lot from the bottom of my heart.

C: Would you like to share some words of encouragement for the young, aspiring generation when it comes to engaging in mathematical research?

L: Mathematics is really a useful discipline interrelating with many others. Take physics as an example, the discipline I’m exploring right now. I’m actually combining and applying mathematical tools and methods to figure out various physical phenomena. Unlike mathematicians, physicists generally don’t pursue 100% accuracy in numerical values, but rather make approximations for the next step. However, both need to have a solid foundation in math. In general, Hong Kong students are more interested in answers and neglect other discoveries during the learning process. As a physicist, I hope that my students will not only pursue answers, but more importantly, understand the principles involved and enjoy the whole process of solving problems and other issues that arise during a study, which might even be more interesting.

F: You’ll never know what opportunities or circumstances await. You should therefore seize every opportunity to experience and learn new things, communicate and interact with different people, and build a good foundation of knowledge. In this way, you will certainly be inspired to explore more in the future. As for me, personally, my career path went from studying math in university, and subsequently to an internship in a financial institution, and maybe to one’s surprise, now I am engaged in neurobiology research — this was certainly a path I didn’t expect. I remember I was very impressed with a paper that I read recently, though it was published more than 10 years ago, with the title “Mathematics is biology’s next microscope, only better; biology is mathematics’ next physics, only better.” Different disciplines can complement each other to develop and progress synergistically, and this is why you should broaden your knowledge base as it will open up more options in future.

C: What are your pastimes? What would be your dream career path if you hadn’t embarked on your scientific research career?

L: I like traveling. I once worked and lived in Germany for two to three years, and visited 16 European countries at that period. That was quite a “proud” achievement. If I hadn’t embarked on my scientific research career, I might have become a tour guide, sharing with tourists about the history and stories of different places across the globe. I might also have returned to Hong Kong and become a physics teacher in a secondary school so I could pass on my passion for physics to future generations.

F: I like going to parks, strolling and enjoying the flower bloom. I also like meeting up with my old fellow students to have dim sum in Chinatown to savor the taste of Hong Kong. I haven’t been able to come back to Hong Kong for three years because of the pandemic! I enjoy watching cooking shows too. I even took up knitting last year. All these are excellent stress relievers. I believe I would have pursued a career related to mathematics and research if I didn’t go into biology. Well, no matter what field I was in, I’d be certain that I would be able to put my love of math to good use.

C: Have you considered returning to Hong Kong?

L: To further advance the global technology development, it is inevitable to participate in quantum technology research and development. In the past two years, Mainland China, the U.S. and Europe have been investing heaps of resources in this field. In comparison, Hong Kong has placed significantly less resources in this area. So naturally, it will be easier for me to find research partners in the likes of the U.S. and Canada. For the time being, I still want to devote my time in quantum physics research, so I will stay wherever research resources are readily available.

F: Work is my primary consideration at the moment. I’ll let it guide me to wherever I’m meant to be. If the right opportunity comes along, I would certainly like to return to Hong Kong; after all, my family is in Hong Kong, and they would definitely be happy too. There is no denying that the U.S. offers more research-related job opportunities, relatively readily available resources and, to a greater extent, chances to interact and collaborate with various researchers.