Engineering PhD Graduate Quenches Curiosity for Truth through Research
Currently a postdoctoral fellow in HKUST, Dr. YIN Ran began his journey at the University as an MPhil student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2014, and obtained his MPhil and PhD degrees in 2016 and 2020 respectively. During his PhD studies, he has published 22 papers in leading journals in the field of environmental engineering, and is also the co-inventor of two granted patents. His remarkable achievements and significant advanced water treatment research has earned him the School of Engineering PhD Research Excellence Award 2020-21.
As an engineering PhD student myself, I was delighted to have the chance to speak with Dr. Yin. While he generously shared his insights, I saw the spark in his eyes that captured his fondness for research and his career.
1. Why did you choose to come to HKUST for your MPhil and PhD studies?
When I was working on my final year project about water treatment during my undergraduate studies at Nanjing University, I grew interests in doing research, thanks to my advisor, an expert in water treatment technology and environmental engineering, who inspired me a lot. HKUST is one of the best research universities in Asia, therefore I chose to embark on my journey here. Through the training of my MPhil studies, I confirmed my interest in doing research and desired to pursue an academic career, so I decided to continue with PhD studies upon graduating from the MPhil program.
2. What does your typical day look like?
I often spend long hours on campus, coming at around 9am and leaving at about 10pm from Monday to Friday. You can usually find me working in the lab or the Teaching Assistants’ office. When I was a student, my daily routine used to be running experiments during the day, and working on reading and writing in the evening. Now as a postdoc, I spend more time on writing papers, teaching, and working with junior students.
3. With such busy schedules, how do you manage your time? What are the top three on your priority list?
My top three priorities are working on research proposals, papers, and meeting junior students. To keep up with these tasks, I like to plan ahead. Some people start working on a project or assignment right before the due date, I am also a "deadline fighter", but in a different way. When I need to complete assignments or projects, I often set many internal deadlines for myself, usually a few days ahead of the due date. I mark them clearly on my calendar, and make sure I observe the schedule and meet the deadlines. This is the way I keep my work organized and efficient.
4. How do you cope with stress and pressure?
Outside work and research, I like playing basketball and watching the replay of NBA games. The basketball court is where I relieve my stress. I also talk to my girlfriend when I am stressed, who is always a good listener to my thoughts.
I gradually realize that, as we gain experience through withstanding different situations and challenges, we become stronger, in turns, we can convert part of the stress and pressure into motivation.
5. What was the greatest challenge that you have encountered in your PhD journey, and how did you overcome it?
One major challenge is about how to strike a balance between the scientific value and practical value of the research work. When we finish a project, we formulate and submit a paper. After that, we receive feedback from the reviewers. Sometimes, we could get comments from the reviewers that the paper is too scientific and not practical enough, or too practical with insufficient fundamental novelty. In fact, I am still trying to find the balance.
6. Every student could experience a research block when experiments do not seem to be working out, what motivates you to keep going at such times?
I trust science. I believe if a test is well designed, the theory should work. Therefore, whenever I encounter a problem in my tests and research, I usually examine each step of the experiment in detail to look for the cause of problem, or seek help from someone to help with double-checking, could be my supervisor or a senior student. Behind all these, the motivation probably comes from the curiosity for truth. I will not be stopped in the face of obstacles.
7. Who will you seek help from when you encounter problems? What are the inspirations you gained from your PhD supervisor?
When I face problems in life, I first try to solve them by myself; and if I cannot find a solution on my own, I will look for advice and help from my parents and friends.
For problems which are related to my studies or more technical, I usually reach out to my PhD supervisor Prof. SHANG Chii. Prof. Shang indeed influenced me a great deal, in many aspects, from research to my attitude on work and life. Prof. Shang taught me how to catch a fish instead of giving me a fish. He takes every challenge as a learning process, and stay curiosity towards new things around. Now, I also take after him in the way of supervising and working with junior students.
8. As a mentor yourself, how do you inspire your student mentees?
As a mentor to some undergraduate students, I usually share my own experience with them, hoping to bring them inspirations and help them realize their interests. I supervised three year four undergraduate students, for their final year project about the water treatment of swimming pool. Three of them are endearing and hardworking. They always work together in the lab, and as a result, they achieved a lot. We put together the efforts, and formulated and submitted a paper to the Sustainable Smart Campus as a Living Lab (SSC) Student Paper Competition. Their innovative idea of a sustainable and smart indoor swimming pool at HKUST received an honorable mention.
Similar to myself, one of these students, who originally planned to get a job in the engineering industry after graduation, discovered his strong interest in research during the process of working on the final year project. To clear up his doubts, I shared with him my experience, that postgraduate study will actually be similar to what they did for their final year project. His experience in the final year project changed his mind, and now, he has decided to stay here as a postgraduate student.
9. Other than the mentorship from your supervisor, what are some other things you find thankful to HKUST?
My journey as a MPhil and PhD student in HKUST has been rewarding. The University has provided many learning and training opportunities. The high-quality courses and seminars, as well as the well-established equipment in labs are crucial to facilitate my learning and research. I am particularly grateful that the University has been playing a supportive role to students attending conferences and exchange programs, which are valuable chances for us to build our network, learn and exchange new ideas.
10. Do you like reading books? Can you recommend a book that inspires you most?
I like poems, especially classical Chinese poetry 300 Tang Poems, which are concise, yet containing various meaning based on different interpretations. They give much food for thoughts, which could be very inspiring for work and life.
I also like biographies of celebrities and prominent figures. A book I would recommend is The Mamba Mentality: How I Play by the late Kobe Bryant, the world famous professional basketball player. The stories of how he trained himself, how he treated each game, and how he pursued championship in each game season, encouraged me a lot.
11. What advice would you give to your past self and your future self – five years ago and five years from now?
Speaking to myself five years ago, I would say "be more open-minded to learn things from different disciplines". When I assist my supervisor to write a new research grant proposal, often times, the scope of research is interdisciplinary, which I found my knowledge not sufficient to cater for these new areas. Therefore, if I could meet my younger self, around the time when I began my PhD studies, I would ask myself to go beyond the boundaries and learn more.
As for the future me in five years’ time, I would remind myself to “stay hungry, stay foolish". I hope I will be able to maintain my curiosity towards new things and keep moving forward. At the same time, I wish the future me will remain humble, and never stop learning from different people around me, and from each challenge or failure I face.
12. What is the secret behind your accomplishments? From your experience, could you share a piece of advice to students considering pursuing PhD studies in engineering?
Well, there is no secret behind. We all make mistakes, this happens no matter in research or in life. However, when I make mistakes, big or small, I treat them very seriously. I have been trying my very best to learn from my mistakes and take these opportunities to grow, in order not to make the same mistake twice.
"Make mistakes, don't fake perfection. But don't make the same mistake twice." This would be my advice, indeed, not just to students who are planning to pursue PhD studies in engineering, but also to all junior students.
By Head Engineering Student Ambassador Sheena Anne Garcia
- SENG news (Apr 29, 2021): Civil Engineering PhD Graduate Awarded for Advanced Water Treatment Research