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November 2023   |   Volume 25 No. 1

A Head Start on Research

Undergraduate research programmes are equipping students with essential research skills for their future, whether that will be pursuing graduate studies or coping with information overload.

When Cai Xuheng was an undergraduate student in computer science at HKU, he was keen to jump into research – not just as a research assistant, but to lead his own project and develop his own ideas. He got his wish in 2022 when he was accepted to HKU’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Programme (URFP), which admits the brightest students (minimum GPA of 3.5) in their final year to work on their own projects or with established researchers at HKU or universities abroad.

Under the supervision of Dr Chao Huang in the Department of Computer Science, Cai published two first-authored papers and presented them at a top international conference. He graduated in June 2023 and is now enrolled in a Master’s programme in computer science at Stanford University.

“The URFP allowed me to be the owner of my own research and work on every step of the whole research pipeline, including coming up with research ideas, reading the related literature, designing and performing the experiments, and writing the papers. These hands-on experiences are critical in building solid research skills,” he said.

Cai is not alone in enjoying these benefits. Every year since 2011, the URFP has provided funding (currently, HK$15,000 for students based in Hong Kong and HK$40,000 for those going overseas) and a free hand to students who are keen to pursue research beyond their course requirements.

A stepping stone

The students are selected by their faculties and this year, more than 50 students enrolled, doing research in such places as Harvard University, Berkeley, the University of British Columbia, as well as HKU (students can choose from more than 40 institutions on four continents). The project must last not less than eight weeks and be completed over semester or summer breaks.

“The University wants to promote a research culture and provide opportunities for students to boost their skills,” said Audrey Chung of the Horizons Office, which runs the programme. “The URFP can be a stepping stone to doing a research postgraduate degree.”

Li Dantong is a second-year PhD student in computer science at Yale University who did his URFP at HKU with Professor Giulio Chiribella. He would like to see more opportunities for undergraduate research.

“My experience was immensely valuable in shaping my academic path. Nowadays, undergraduates often need to invest significant time in research before applying to graduate schools. The URFP provided the motivation and platform for me to engage in research actively,” he said.

Overseas experiences also prove eye-opening, as George Wong Yin-pok, now doing a PhD in chemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles, found. “It allowed me to gain insight into how research is done differently in the United States compared to Hong Kong. I was able to create connections with overseas institutions that were important for my graduate school application and in my future research career.”

Future ready

While URFP is aimed at the top 90-percentile of students, the University is keen for all students to gain research skills. HKU joined the Laidlaw Programme in 2017–2018 which provides research and leadership training for first- and second-year students with a minimum GPA of 3.0. The programme runs over two summers, and students get to apply their skills in community projects either in Hong Kong or overseas. For instance, students recently built a nursing station in Fiji and raised awareness of physical and mental health, established a support group for healthcare workers working with dementia patients in Hong Kong, and conducted digital literacy workshops for underprivileged children in Shanghai.

The opportunity to gain research capabilities is expanding even wider this year with the launch of the Future Readiness Initiative for incoming students. This programme includes two short online and self-paced courses on communication skills and research skills, and it is intended to prepare students for university life and beyond. While not mandatory, students are strongly encouraged to complete the courses and will receive out-of-classroom credits for doing so.

On the research component, students are introduced to research methods and how to sort through masses of data, analyse them and draw conclusions – skills that have immediate real-world application given the huge amounts of data, true and false, that are circulating, and that also will serve students well during their university studies.

“We really want to enthuse students about the research possibilities at HKU,” said Associate Vice-President of Teaching and Learning at HKU, Professor Pauline Chiu. “Normally, that doesn’t happen until the final year when they have to do a capstone or dissertation project. We want them to think of it much sooner, starting from their first year.”

Poster session of the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Programme 2022–2023

A poster session of the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Programme 2022–2023 was held where selected Research Internship Award recipients presented their research findings to the University community.

We really want to enthuse students about the research possibilities at HKU. We want them to think of it much sooner, starting from their first year.

Portrait of Professor Pauline Chiu

PROFESSOR PAULINE CHIU