Community and Sustainability |
The Sweet Solution to a Global Crisis

Graduated with a BSc in Mathematics in 2011, Lancelot SHIR has taken a sweet and varied journey in life. A few years after graduation, Lancelot already had success with his first business — a tutorial center teaching mathematics — which he funded with two years of hard work of working.

As a local rock star tutor, it could have been all maths for Lancelot with his tutorial business achieving great results. However, he encountered a health problem in 2017 due to massive work pressure, and his life took an unexpected turn. 

“I was suffering from a stomach problem and a friend of mine suggested I used raw honey to treat the problem. It worked a treat and I was suddenly catapulted into the world of honey and bees – I couldn’t stop learning and it changed my life,” he says.

Lancelot learned all the things about beekeeping from a local beekeeper on a farm in Yuen Long, studying honey production without the use of antibiotics, no sugar, and no heat compression. His interest grew steadily and later started another business, Hong Kong Raw Honey in 2017, with two HKUST alumni. Since then, he not only became an advocate for health benefits of raw honey but also about maintaining the vitality of bees to the global ecosystem. 

For much of the past 10 years, beekeepers have been reporting annual hive losses of 30 percent or higher. The situation is alarming as the global decline in bee populations poses a serious threat to a wide variety of plants and corps critical to human well-being and livelihoods.

“It’s one of the main reasons I became a beekeeper, as bee numbers across the world are declining rapidly due to global warming and pesticide use, yet they are essential for the pollination of plants, with roughly 70 percent of food globally supported by bees,” Lancelot says.

Ever-expanding urban developments in densely populated cities threaten wild bees and their food supply. And ever stronger tropical storms are exacerbating the damage.  As such, despite all the hard work, the supply of honey is unreliable. 

An effective way of tackling the problem can be widespread urban beekeeping for solitary bees. Lancelot says solitary bees, accounting for 90% of the world’s bee populations, are perfect to be kept in the home because they are harmless and can survive without the support of a hive. By using wood and other materials, a small base for solitary bees can be put anywhere whether at home or in the park, creating more pollination for the natural environment.

The practice of placing “bee hotels” in urban environments is growing across the world. “It’s very big in Taiwan and they even promote it to local schools, but in Hong Kong we have a while to go,” he says.

The journey was made possible to Lancelot in many ways by HKUST. Having taken Eco Studies and China Studies minors as a complement to his Mathematics degree, Lancelot was exposed to information about global warming and how climate change is impacting the earth. And he is driven to share his knowledge with others.

Lancelot has maintained his tutoring business and at the same time been busy building his production sites near Tai Mo Shan Country Park and Lantau Island, and running tours of his farms where visitors learn about major nectar plants in Hong Kong, bee anatomy and lifestyle, how to harvest honey, and building bee hotels.

“I’m working hard in the sun, trying to keep track of queens, and dealing with swarming. Bees have predators, they get sick, and the queen, who is essential to the health of the hive, can die as well, so there’s a lot to do,” he says.

Hong Kong Raw Honey is part enterprise, activism, and education. While the industry is nascent in the city, Lancelot says it can take off the way craft beer has globally, a reason why he is now focusing on distribution, marketing and packaging. 

“We need to let people know about it and be inspired by our product and what we are doing to help the world. Everyone in this city wants to be a lawyer, doctor or banker, and we need to change this and get people educated. I know it’s hard to do – even my parents were not entirely pleased with my choice,” says Lancelot, who shows us that although the road ahead is thorny, we just have to “bee” ourselves, and follow our dreams for the betterment of mankind.

Hong Kong Raw Honey is now for sale at HKUST’s souvenir shop. Come and support this young man’s efforts to safeguard bees and our abundant food varieties.

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Untangle Links between Nitrogen Oxides and Airborne Sulfates Bringing New Hope to Improvement of Hazy Air Pollution

A research team led by scientists from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) unveiled a first-in-kind study of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and its role in the rise and fall of airborne sulfates in hazy air pollution, offering policymakers new insights into ways to tackle smoggy weather. 

Dense, hazy fog episodes characterized by relatively high humidity, low visibility and extremely high PM2.5 have been a headache to many megacities including those in Mainland China. Among pollutants that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5), airborne sulfate is one of the most common components of hazy air pollution formed atmospherically via the oxidation of sulphur dioxide (SO2).  

While the reactant-product link between sulphur dioxide and airborne sulfate formation is common knowledge, the complex oxidants and mechanisms that enable this transformation are not.  In particular, the role of nitrogen oxides in sulfate production is unclear.  Managing sulfate pollution has dogged researchers and governments alike as it is not produced directly from pollution sources, unlike nitrogen oxides which are clearly emitted from vehicle exhaust, and the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, diesel and natural gas.  This is the first study systematically examining the multiple roles of nitrogen oxides in affecting oxidants that enable this set of chemical reactions. 

In collaboration with the California Institute of Technology, a research team led by Prof. YU Jianzhen, Professor at HKUST’s Department of Chemistry and Division of Environment and Sustainability, identified three formation mechanism regimes, corresponding to the three distinct roles that nitrogen oxides play in sulfate production depending on the chemical surroundings. Under low NOx conditions, NOx catalyze the cycling of hydroxyl radicals, an effective oxidant of SO2, and thus promote formation of sulfate.  Under extremely high NOx common in haze-fog conditions, NOx act as  dominant oxidants of SO2 and thus also promote formation of sulfate.  But in an environment with medium-high level of NOx, nitrogen dioxide (a member of the NOx family) would actually serve as a sink for hydroxyl radicals which supresses the oxidation of sulphur dioxide and thus inhibits sulfate formation. 

These findings indicate that in order to reduce sulfate levels in highly polluted haze-fog conditions, co-control of SO2 and NOx emissions is necessary.  However, since NOx would inhibit sulfate formation when its emissions are intermediately high, suppressing NOx in such environment would thus bring up sulfate levels in the air.

“Since sulfate is formed atmospherically and cannot be controlled directly, we must target its precursor components (such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides).  Effective reduction of sulfate content in the air relies on knowledge of the quantitative relationship it has with its precursors.  This work lays the conceptual framework to delineate the relationship between sulfate and one set of its controllable precursors, nitrogen oxides (NOx) – the low and extremely high concentration of NOx could both fuel up the production of sulfate.  The policymakers should pay attention to when they try to control the emission of NOx,” explained Prof. Yu. 
As sulfate is one of the major components which leads to haze formation and acid rain, this study laid the groundwork for formulating more effective measures of targeting this major pollutant involved in aforementioned events – which do not just block the views or make aquatic environments more acidic, but also compromise human health.  With greater understanding and better control, this will lead to improved air quality and better protection of public health and ecological systems as a whole.

The team’s findings were recently published in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience.

 

Announcements |
Latest Information on Undergraduate Admissions for 2020 intake

Media Coverage for NEW UG Science programs on Ming Pao Educational Page published on 17 December 2019

 

 

Student development & Bonding |
Coming from Thousands of Miles Away to Widen Horizons

HKUST has been committed to enrolling students from around the world to foster campus diversity and advance internationalization. To continue broadening the non-local student mix, the University introduced a “Counselor Fly-in” program in 2018 to let high school counselors from Central Asia and Middle East have a deeper understanding of what opportunities HKUST can offer to their students. The program continued in March 2019 with some 30 high school counselors from nine Western European countries joining. Here we meet two students from Kazakhstan and Turkey who share with us what brought them to Hong Kong.

Fourth-year Biotechnology and Business student Kamila ABDRASSILOVA from Kazakhstan witnessed the increasing number of students from her home country – when she started, there were only seven and now the number has doubled to 14.

When it was time to make her choice for post-secondary schooling, Kamila did her homework in finding the university she wanted to attend. She was particularly concerned about the university’s academic and employability rankings, scholarship opportunities and whether it has a diverse student body. HKUST was number one in employability in Greater China, with rankings close to Harvard and Columbia, and abundant internship and exchange opportunities. As an IB graduate, Kamila could also secure a scholarship for full tuition and living expenses. After all, it didn’t take long for her to make the decision -  choosing this young and innovative university.

But it was not all smooth sailing shortly after Kamila’s arrival. “At first it was hard moving to Hong Kong, I was missing my family and there were political problems in Kazakhstan that made me worried. Luckily I received support from the counseling and wellness center at HKUST which is free for students. This was an incredible help,” she recounts.

It was the open environment and people on a similar wavelength that helped the Almaty native settle seamlessly into life in Hong Kong and at the University. Kamila actively joined different organizations such as the Student Innovation in Global Health Technology (SIGHT), a group that allows her to come up with pragmatic solutions to current problems with other SIGHT members. Along the way, it helped enhance her design thinking and project management capabilities.

She also had the opportunity to study abroad at the University of California, Berkeley, where she not only enhanced her knowledge but also was able to discover and experience American culture. And she completed an internship at HSBC’s Hong Kong headquarters in Growth and Innovation. These precious experiences have helped her develop a global mindset, which is one of the most important skills to thrive in the future of work.

All these opportunities to progress herself have quickly made Kamila become an advocate for HKUST, helping to organize and lead a trip to her home nation to promote the University. 

Year one Economics student Zeynep AYDIN from Turkey chose HKUST over Ivy League schools such as Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth College. That decision might seem unorthodox to many, but the forward thinker followed her heart to come to Hong Kong wishing to learn to be a successful entrepreneur in the growing markets of Asia.

Her interest in studying aboard stemmed from her passion for Model United Nations (MUN), an educational simulation and academic activity in which students can learn about diplomacy, international relations, and how the United Nations operates. Zeynep joined the MUN club in her school in ninth grade. She was so good at it that she created a start-up named MUN College that turned aspects of MUN into educational curriculums designed for first-timers that aim to raise 21st-century individuals who are adaptable, skillful and creative.

Given Zeynep’s strong desire to pursue entrepreneurship, when she was looking for overseas universities to attend, she was confident that she would fit perfectly into HKUST. Right now, Zeynep already felt right at home and has actively participated in many campus activities, while trying to meet academic requirements. “Campus life is super easy, and cultural difference was not a problem at all,” she says. “HKUST students are smart and global thinkers, they made me see the world from a whole new perspective and made me feel welcome.” 

Although relatively new to HKUST, Zeynep has a piece of advice for non-local students who are pondering to study here. “One can always prepare from an academic point of view, but you need to be able to get ready to be independent, and you need to mentally prepare to be a confident and strong individual,” she says.
Kamila has another suggestion for newcomers. “Make the most of any opportunities to pursue extracurricular activities that help you build genuine friendships and a ‘family away from home’, and ensure you strike a healthy balance between studying and your social life.”

Graduating in 2020, Kamila already has an eye for a career in the healthcare or biotech industry in Asia. She is confident that majoring in Biotechnology and Business has equipped her with the required skills and knowledge that help her excel in the emerging field of biotech, and conjure up innovative products to improve our everyday life.

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Shed Light on Modulation of Thermal Bleaching of Coral Reefs by Internal Waves

An international research team led by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has demonstrated that cooling by internal waves could potentially create thermal refuges for coral reefs, and may help prevent and more accurate predict locations of coral bleaching.

Coral reefs around the world are threatened by pan-tropical bleaching events caused by rising seawater temperatures linked to ongoing climate change and extreme conditions like El Niño.  However, bleaching patterns can be hard to predict, especially in deeper water.  Currently, most bleaching predictions are based on surface estimates of seawater temperatures gathered with satellites.  While satellite observations are important for understanding large-scale patterns and studying remote locations, they are only able to detect temperatures at the very surface of the ocean and provide averages over relatively large scales.

In this research, Prof. Alex WYATT, Assistant Professor at HKUST’s Department of Ocean Science, collaborated with scientists from the University of Tokyo, Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, U.S. Geological Survey and the Florida Institute of Technology, to perform a quantitative analysis of temperature records influenced by internal waves on coral reefs in the western, central and eastern Pacific Ocean.  The team measured temperatures across depths at coral reef sites in Japan, French Polynesia and Panama for multiple years, capturing in situ heating events associated with the 2015-2016 El Niño. 

Using a novel filtering approach developed by the team, internal wave signals were extracted from the observed temperatures and used to compare heating in the presence and absence of internal waves.  This showed that internal waves reduced heating by up to 88% during the 2015-2016 El Niño.  The duration of severe heating events likely to totally kill corals was also reduced at some sites – by 36 to 50% – or prevented entirely at others.

The team also showed that natural internal wave cooling increases with depth.  Heating was reduced by 20 to 41% at the shallowest sites (8 to 10m water depth), compared to 54 to 88% in deeper water (30 to 40m water depth).  Internal waves may thus be an important process for naturally reducing coral bleaching across coral reef depths and ocean locations. Conversely, the results also suggest that in the absence of internal waves, or if internal waves frequency and intensity decrease with climate change, the heating threatening coral reefs could become even more severe.

Prof Wyatt said the results suggested that there might be innovative ways to adapt this information for local protection of coral reefs.  “Active management approaches such as artificial upwelling may reduce the worst impacts of heating across a small scale over at-risk coral communities identified for special protection.  However, artificial upwelling can only offer localized, and perhaps temporary, protection from rapid climate heating. Urgently addressing the underlying causes of climate change are critical for the future survival of coral reefs.”

The team’s findings were recently published in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience.

 

About The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) (www.ust.hk) is a world-class research university that focuses on science, technology and business as well as humanities and social science.  HKUST offers an international campus, and a holistic and interdisciplinary pedagogy to nurture well-rounded graduates with global vision, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking.  HKUST attained the highest proportion of internationally excellent research work in the Research Assessment Exercise 2014 of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee, and is ranked as the world’s best young university in Times Higher Education’s Young University Rankings 2019.  Its graduates were ranked 10th worldwide and top in Greater China in Global Employability University Survey 2019.

For media enquiries, please contact:
Anita Lam    
Tel: 2358 6313
Email: anitalam@ust.hk    

Jamie Wong
Tel: 3469 2512 / 5190 7882
Email: jamiewong@ust.hk

STEM Education |
Science Focus (Issue 016) x Cells at Work!

“1, 2, 3, 4! We are Cells at Work!”

 

Wanna know more about the adorable Platelet and other characters in the animation “Cells at Work!”? In this issue of Science Focus, not only do we bring you the basics of hematology, but also articles on various interesting scientific topics – from the chemical secrets behind lipsticks and sunscreen, to the bizarre Schrödinger’s cat and some game-changing technologies like the edible water pouch and touchscreen. 👩‍💻

 

Come and grab a copy at SCI/HOME or Mr & Mrs Ho Ting Sik Visitor Information Center (at HKUST campus), or find the e-book at:
http://ebookshelf.ust.hk/flippingbook/G19107/mobile/index.html

 

👉Finally, don’t forget to follow us on Facebook (@hkustsciencefocus) and Instagram (@sciencefocus.hkust)!

STEM Education |
Igniting Passion for Physics

Effective STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is a major challenge in Hong Kong’s schools and institutions, which have struggled with a lack of talent, time, and tools to support teaching, resulting from an exam-oriented culture and a staid system of learning.

As an advocate for STEM education, Prof. Philip SOU Iam-Keong from the Department of Physics believes that it is important for STEM education to not stay in its current “Mickey Mouse” format but leverage existing technology and highlight discoveries from the most recent research so students can learn new knowledge. However, he also acknowledges teachers’ immense difficulty in teaching STEM subjects as they have no time to catch up with the latest scientific and technological innovations.

“In schools, most of the teachers are too busy to engage in STEM, even though the government has allocated funds for STEM education, they are unwilling to pursue it,” comments Prof. Sou. 

As a diligent scholar in his field of study, Prof. Sou has published more than 160 cited research papers in relation to complex physics. But deep down he is keen to spread the simple joy of physics to students around him, and to teach them to change things for the better through practical application.

Therefore, Prof. Sou has created an experimental kit, derived from his accidental discovery of a novel reflected electron diffraction phenomenon. The idea for this kit started in 2015, when Prof. Sou was assigned to be a question setter for an experimental examination of the 2016 Asian Physics Olympiad Competition. The question must be related to the faculty's research strength, so Prof. Sou decided to develop this kit which could demonstrate real life examples and theoretical applications, eventually making it the ideal tool to promote STEM in high schools and universities.

The set, comprising of 10 key components including light mechanisms via laser diode, a rotating dial, and observation board that deftly illustrates electron diffraction and optical diffraction, can be easily assembled. As a package, students get to have hands-on experiment for testing optical alignment skills and learn the linkage between periodicity and randomness.

“It is reasonably priced for educators and is a great help for teachers who need to teach STEM education and find it difficult to prepare materials,” Prof. Sou says.

He also added a presentation about the kit to his department’s "mini-lectures" outreach activity that allows trained undergraduate students to deliver small scale lectures to students of local high schools with demonstrations aiming to arouse their interest in physical sciences. He is also planning to join the Hong Kong Education City to promote the kit to local physics teachers.

Not only was the kit well received in high schools, tertiary institutions such as the University of Macau, the University of Science and Technology of China, Southern University of Science and Technology and Jinan University also looked into the possibility to use the kit to teach their freshmen. Prof. Sou thus developed two learning levels of the kit tailor-made for high school and university students.

Some teachers in Macau even used his kit to develop games. Based on the quantitative experiments following the manual, students get to compete with each other to find the answer first to open a digital lock. This way, it makes the learning more fun and engaging.

STEM relies on technology and experiments, it is important to practise its use in the classroom, Prof. Sou stresses. But he understands that his effort alone is not enough to create a new culture of learning and teaching in schools. Instead, he wants to set an example for the higher education academia – incorporating their latest researches into creative STEM tools.  Providing students with these learning experiences helps transform the classroom into a place where hands-on learning and real-world application thrive.
 

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Discover New Virus Traits That May Help Fight Global Warming and Develop Anti-virus Drug

Oxygen levels in the ocean have depleted over the past few decades* due to global warming and emissions of greenhouse gas, causing pollution and disrupting our ecosystem.  In efforts to curb the trend, researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) discovered a mechanism that may eventually help an eco-friendly aquatic bacterium clean up more carbon dioxide in the ocean and produce more marine oxygen.  

Like trees on land, cyanobacteria, or what commonly known as blue-green algae, perform photosynthesis in the ocean.  They provide oxygen for marine life and absorb over 20% of the world’s total carbon emission.  However, natural predation and virus infection kill nearly half of the world’s cyanobacteria on a daily basis.  A virus called cyanophage alone, wipes out one fifth of the total cyanobacterial population every day.  

A research team led by Prof. ZENG Qinglu, Associate Professor of the Department of Ocean Science at HKUST, has recently discovered how the virus cyanophage comes to kill that eco-friendly bacteria.  After five years of study, it was found for the first time that the weapon that cyanophage used against its host was in fact the energy emitted from the host’s photosynthetic activity.  Laboratory experiment using cultured cyanophages has revealed that cyanophage cannot fully function in darkness, yet, the algae was still killed at night.  It was because the virus has completed the infection process during the daytime - fueled by the energy they obtained from the blue green algae’s photosynthesis activities, eventually causing the disintegration of its cell structure at night.   Many living organisms, including humans who are active during the day and rest at night, follow diurnal rthyms, but this is the first time diurnal rhtyhms are also observed in viruses.

“By knowing how the light-dark cycle controls the infection process of cyanophage,  not only can it help minimize the risk of infection for cynobacteria, thereby boosting its ability to absorb CO2 to help slow down global warming, but may also shed light on future research into medication against viruses,” Prof. Zeng said.  “Many human diseases are caused by human viruses.  Now that we know viral infection can be affected by the circadian rhythm and the light-dark cycle, it may offer insights into drug development against human viruses.” 

The findings were recently published in scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

*According to a scientific research published in Nature in 2017, the ocean had lost more than 2% of oxygen over the past 50 years, and the pace is expected to quicken to up to 7% over the next 80 years, causing potentially detrimental damages to fisheries and coastal economies.

Announcements |
HKUST School of Science - Campus and Lab Visit Programme and Student Interest Form

Campus and Lab Visit Programme

Campus and Lab Visit Programme in 2019-2020 will be open for application:

   APPLY NOW Please click here for Campus and Lab Visit Programme > registration

For enquiry, please contact 2358 5065 or email ugscience@ust.hk

 

Student Interest Form

Sign up to receive any latest news and events related to UG admission from the School of Science of HKUST. 

   Sign Up NOW Please click here for Student Interest Form > registration

For enquiry, please contact 2358 5065 or email ugscience@ust.hk

 

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Unlock Cancer-Causing Mechanism of E. coli Toxin with Synthetic Biology Approach Paving Way for New Preventive Measures for Colorectal Cancer

An inter-disciplinary team of researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) unraveled how a toxin released by Escherichia coli (E. coli) – a human gut bacteria, is connected to colorectal cancer, offering new insights to the health impact of this prevalent bacteria and facilitating future research on the prevention of this third most common cancer worldwide*. 

While human gut microbes like E. coli help digest food and regulate our immune system, they also contain toxins that could arrest cell cycle and eventually cause cell death.  Scientists have long known that colibactin – a genotoxin produced by E. coli, can induce DNA double-strand breaks in eukaryotic cells and increase the risk of colorectal cancer in human.  However, how colibactin causes DNA damage had remained a mystery as reconstructing colibactin metabolites is extremely difficult due to the compound’s instability, low titer and complexity of its biosynthetic pathway. 

Now, a research team led by Prof. Qian Peiyuan, David von Hansemann Professor of Science and Chair Professor of HKUST’s Department of Ocean Science and Division of Life Science, have unearthed the missing link using a novel biosynthetic method.  The team not only succeeded in cloning the colibactin gene cluster, but also found a way to mass produce the genes for testing and validation.  After repeated assays of various sets of colibactin precursors, the team eventually identified colibactin-645 as the culprit of the DNA double-strand breaks, and uncovered colibactin metabolite's biosynthetic pathway as well as its mechanism of causing DNA damage.  

Prof. Qian said, “Although a few colibactin metabolites have been reported to damage DNA via DNA crosslinking activity, the genotoxic colibactin that possesses DNA double-strands directly is yet-to-be-identified.  Our research has confirmed colibactin-645 exerts direct DNA double-strand breaks, that unearthed the missing link that correlates colibactin to its health effects on human beings.” 

LI Zhongrui, a researcher of the team, said the restructuring of colibactin’s molecular scaffold provides a model for designing and synthesizing potent DNA cleaving agents – such as synthetic restriction “enzymes” or chemotherapeutic agents.

In collaboration with University of California at Berkeley and Scripps Institution of Oceanography of University of California, San Diego, the research findings were recently published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Chemistry and the early findings on colibactin were published in another scientific journal Nature Chemical Biology. 

*According to the statistics of World Cancer Research Fund 2018: https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/cancer-trends/colorectal-cancer-statistics

 

About The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology 
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) (www.ust.hk) is a world-class research university that focuses on science, technology and business as well as humanities and social science.  HKUST offers an international campus, and a holistic and interdisciplinary pedagogy to nurture well-rounded graduates with global vision, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking.  HKUST attained the highest proportion of internationally excellent research work in the Research Assessment Exercise 2014 of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee, and is ranked as the world’s best young university in Times Higher Education’s Young University Rankings 2019.  Its graduates were ranked 16th worldwide and top in Greater China in Global Employability University Survey 2018.

For media enquiries, please contact:
Anita Lam    
Tel: 2358 6313
Email: anitalam@ust.hk    

Lindy Wong
Tel: 2358 6306
Email: lindywong@ust.hk
 

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Build the World’s First All-Optical Multilayer Neural Network Paving Way for Next Generation of AI Hardware

Researchers from The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have developed the world’s first all-optical neural network for deep machine learning – bringing artificial intelligence a step closer to matching human brains in tackling complex problems such as pattern recognition or risk management, and at much lower energy consumption at the speed of light.

For a long time, optical computation has been limited to linear multiplication*. With only linear multiplication, a neural network cannot be used for deep machine learning which simulates human brain functions. Deep machine learning in AI requires a multilayer neural network in which nonlinear activation functions are necessary components.  But in a conventional hybrid optical neural network, nonlinear activation functions – which simulate the way neurons response in human brains, are implemented electronically, thereby restricting both the speed and power.  Now, a research team led by Professor DU Shengwang and Assistant Professor LIU Junwei from HKUST’s Department of Physics, demonstrated the first-of-its-kind multilayer all-optical artificial neural network, making large-scale optical neural networks a step closer to reality.  

In addressing the challenges, the team used cold atoms with electromagnetically induced transparency – which only require very weak laser power – to carry out nonlinear optical activation functions and developed a two-layer fully-connected all-optical neural network. The network was tested for classifying the order and disorder phases of the Ising model in condensed matter physics, and the outcomes were proven as accurate as a well-trained computer-based neural network.  

Prof. Du said, “While our work is a proof-of-principle demonstration, it shows that a new generation of optical artificial intelligence – which functions much faster at much lower energy consumption, is possible.”

Prof. Liu added, “Going forward, we hope to expand the scale of this approach to build a bigger all-optical neural network with more complex architectures for practical applications such as image recognition.” 

The finding was recently published in the authoritative journal Optica, and featured as a news release by the Optical Society.  

*Linear multiplication refers to addition, subtraction and multiplication in basic Mathematics operations

 

About The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology 
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) (www.ust.hk) is a world-class research university that focuses on science, technology and business as well as humanities and social science.  HKUST offers an international campus, and a holistic and interdisciplinary pedagogy to nurture well-rounded graduates with global vision, a strong entrepreneurial spirit and innovative thinking.  HKUST attained the highest proportion of internationally excellent research work in the Research Assessment Exercise 2014 of Hong Kong’s University Grants Committee, and is ranked as the world’s best young university in Times Higher Education’s Young University Rankings 2019.  Its graduates were ranked 16th worldwide and top in Greater China in Global Employability University Survey 2018.

For media enquiries, please contact:
Anita Lam    
Tel: 2358 6313
Email: anitalam@ust.hk    

Lindy Wong
Tel: 2358 6306 / 5190 7882
Email: lindywong@ust.hk 

STEM Education |
Biology Saves STEM Education from Its Shackles

STEM has been a “buzzword” in Hong Kong’s educational scene in recent years with schools investing resources in technology gadgets, but for Prof. King CHOW of Division of Life Sciences, the efforts do not seem to be on the right track. Hong Kong is a city known for rote learning, a key element of STEM education - trying to solve problems in an interdisciplinary approach - is missed out. This not only results in a cul-de-sac in science education but also an impediment to nurture innovators or scientists that Hong Kong needs.

“STEM is really about allowing students to learn about methodology, approach and principles, and rules in application. Unfortunately, in many high schools and universities in Hong Kong, students learn information but miss out on logic and the analytical aspect of it,” comments Prof. Chow.

Factual information can always be found on textbooks or the internet, but Prof. Chow recommends that students focus more on the approach and the methodology of discovery. “There is no fixed way to understand Mother Nature. In our education system we should give students more chances to go out and make observations on things they are interested in, instead of training them just to go through the uniform public examination,” he says.

Prof. Chow was a curious child growing up and chose to study biology for his undergraduate program. Driven by family incidences of cancer to pursue a PhD in Cell Biology from the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, he became a Belfer Fellow of Molecular Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine before coming to HKUST.

Prof. Chow specializes in the molecular genetics of body patterning, neural development, synthetic and evolutionary biology. From the halls of academia to the realities of everyday life and how science can tackle problems, he is spearheading the next generation of problem solvers ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Being one of Hong Kong’s leading advocates for STEM, he is well aware that training students the ability to perform data analysis and interpretation and then deduce the principles by themselves are of paramount importance. The training starts earlier, the better. That’s why he led an effort to bring the International Biology Olympiad (IBO) – a high school student competition worldwide – to Hong Kong with two fundamental purposes. First, he wants to create a broad-based platform for learning biology by the public. Second, perhaps more importantly, he wants to change the way biology is being taught and perceived in local schools.

The IBO, Hong Kong Contest (IBO-HKC) was launched in 2018. One year prior to that, the organizing committee initiated the Hong Kong Joint School Biology Olympiad as a pilot test run. “The students were so excited by it because they didn’t know biology could be learned in this way and found it a lot of fun,” says Prof. Chow. 

Biology in the traditional education system is about memorization and keywords, so that high scores are rewarded to those who excel in these two aspects. But IBO-HKC proved to be a game-changer because it opened students’ eyes to different styles of learning.

Eighty students out of 589 contestants of IBO-HKC were selected to undergo the first phase training of three phases and attended lectures of 24 hours. After that, 15 students were selected to phase two of learning lab sessions where they studied molecular biology, environmental biology, and fieldwork, etc. with a total of 29 hours. Passing that, only six students were left to continue with phase three which involved a 36-hour research discussion. In the end, four best-performed students were chosen to represent Hong Kong for the first time to participate in the IBO in Hungary in July.

The competition was fiercely contested by 285 contestants from 73 countries and regions, however, the four representatives brought one gold, two silver and one bronze medals home.

The youngsters are thrilled to have such outstanding results, but what they cherish most is the practical learning they have obtained from the competition to apply analytical skills and creativity through tackling challenging problems. 

For Prof. Chow, the success of IBO is only the beginning of a long journey to change how biology and other science subjects are taught in traditional schools.  “If we truly want to embrace STEM, we have to give more flexibility, especially in examinations, to students so that they learn knowledge not by memorizing textbook content and capturing keywords, but being able to apply knowledge as science is changing every day,” he says.