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Spring 2012  No.21
Always Reaching Higher

Prof Christopher Chao enjoys pushing himself to greater levels of achievement, even if it means leaving his comfort zone and taking on fresh challenges to get there. He is thus full of anticipation about his new role as Associate Dean (Research & Graduate Studies). Not only will the former associate head and acting head of the Mechanical Engineering Department be driving the School forward in its postgraduate education, he will also be boosting fresh approaches to cutting-edge research that can contribute to solving major issues of our time. 

The School of Engineering already has a highly ranked global reputation for its research productivity and outcomes, and draws top students, many from Mainland China, through the cutting-edge nature of its faculty team. However, the School is not content to stand still.

Prof Chao notes that these days whether postgraduates go into academia or industry – and many also take the latter path – they need communication and interpersonal skills as well as brilliance to win funding or engage support for a project. "In the old days, postgraduates would only say how difficult their research was and that nobody would understand it. Now they really should be able to tell people what they are doing. They need to be clear and concise; to persuade through discussion; understand what colleagues in other fields are doing and why.

Such attributes are set to be developed through presentation workshops and forums where students learn to explain their work to people outside their specialty as well as fun activities such as group expeditions and gatherings to strengthen social skills and widen perspectives. "We want to make it possible for our students to pursue their dreams, whether as researchers, lecturers or industry leaders," said Prof Chao. "And to build up peer support networks that can spark lifetime friendships and working partnerships."

Internationalization is an essential element of this to boost cross-cultural awareness and ties. The School's success in attracting high-flying doctoral candidates on the prestigious Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme has already brought in students from different continents. Now the goal is to increase the international numbers overall. Prof Chao and his team recently visited over 20 universities in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, finding great interest in collaboration.

Strengthening mainland ties is also a focus, with joint postgraduate programs being explored and three-way partnerships between HKUST, a mainland institution and an international university due to be considered later. The HKUST Fok Ying Tung Graduate School in Nansha and IER in Shenzhen also offer further openings for top engineering research collaboration and entry into Mainland China. "Together with the University's Entrepreneurship Center to turn innovative research into an enterprise and the pioneering Center for Engineering Education Innovation providing additional mentorship, the School's postgraduates will have the skills, research opportunities, networks and support to develop themselves into leaders of the future in whichever path they decide to take."

On the research front, Prof Chao is set to encourage faculty members to engage in theme-based studies involving large-scale multi-disciplinary projects as well as excel at the individual level. Significant areas that beckon include energy, bioengineering, and smart green buildings.

He believes there is exciting potential for major contributions to be made given the world-class talents that comprise the School. "It is the same as when I took this position," he said. "You jump to new areas and rise to the challenge. Those at SENG are risk-takers by nature which is why they are able to achieve so much."