New Associate Dean Prof. WANG Yu-Hsing Protects Mother Nature with Engineering Expertise

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Nature-Loving Geotechnical Engineer

New Associate Dean Prof. WANG Yu-Hsing Protects Mother Nature with Engineering Expertise

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Prof. Wang Yu-Hsing considers students’ happiness to be his greatest achievement.
Prof. Wang Yu-Hsing considers students’ happiness to be his greatest achievement. [Download Photo]

“When I grew up, I thought I would become a professional animal watcher in Africa,” said Prof. WANG Yu-Hsing, the new Associate Dean of Engineering (Undergraduate Studies) at HKUST. Having discovered 63 kinds of birds and numerous tree species and even come across a barking deer on the university campus, Prof. Wang is dedicated to civil engineering research projects that protect trees, birds, slopes, and air quality to eventually ensure sustainable development of the smart city via artificial intelligence (AI).

In love with nature since a young age, the young Wang with strong academic performance chose civil engineering which both fulfilled his family’s expectations and his own interest in nature. “Geotechnical engineering in civil engineering deals with soil, rocks, earthquakes, landslides, and the natural environment. It is not only about the man-made, concrete environment; it is about Mother Nature.”

Upon graduation from bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the National Taiwan University, Prof. Wang pursued PhD studies at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in the US. His PhD research on energy loss during wave propagation in soil involved experiments in a laboratory environment free of noise and vibration. For one whole semester, he had to conduct experiments in the lab during the most tranquil moments from 12 midnight to 6 every morning, then brush his teeth in the dorm room, and finally attend classes at 8am. His hard and superb work paid off as he gained Georgia Tech’s George F. Sowers Award for PhD students.

The experience in the US changed him substantially. “I was most excited as my PhD supervisor Prof. Carlos SANTAMARINA did things in non-traditional ways. Inspired by great improvements in medical research since the use of CT (computerized tomography) scan, my supervisor started scanning geomaterials such as soil and rocks. Such geophysical testing, widely popular now, was a novel approach back then in 1997. Besides, we worked on micromechanics and sensing technologies, all of which were non-traditional at the time.”

Two months before completion of PhD studies, Prof. Wang had job interviews with HKUST and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) respectively. “I had heard wonderful things about HKUST for a long time but I did not perform well during the interview, which was most frustrating. On the day after the interview however, I came across a choir singing gospel music God Will Make a Way in the University’s concourse. The beautiful music gave me peace, and I knew HKUST was the place to be.”

Recently being awarded the Long Service Award and looking back on the two decades at the University, there were ups and downs but every time he had the strength to bear with the pain and overcome difficulties.

Following his PhD supervisor’s path to tackle new fields every few years, Prof. Wang had worked on a number of research areas at HKUST to solve real-world issues. In favor of the student-oriented pedagogical approach, he recruited students to fabricate sensors together for monitoring landslides, drawing students from various engineering departments as well as those actively engaged in the robot contest Robocon. That was the beginning of the HKUST Data-Enabled Scalable Research Lab, a makerspace specialized in the applications of geotechnical internet of things, deep learning, and big data analytics on sustainable city development, of which Prof. Wang is the Director.

“Civil engineers put sensors on mountain tops and other harsh, outdoor environments, which means that our sensors have to be tailor-made to withstand all sorts of natural conditions. After student recruitment, the first-generation sensors we created were, of course, useless!” said Prof. Wang half-jokingly. As the team continued to explore further, students became more mature and started to take the lead. Winning a few rounds of the government’s Innovation and Technology Fund, the team gradually incorporated deep learning, machine learning, and other AI tools, along with enhanced server and hardware capability.

Giving presentations to close to 20 government departments and proactively learning about their issues, the team ended up helping the Drainage Services Department, Geotechnical Engineering Office, and the Hong Kong Observatory, among others, to solve a wide range of problems.

One of them involved the Drainage Services Department which was moving the Shatin Sewage Treatment Works into caverns. As the relocation might affect ecosystem of little and great egrets along Shing Mun River, Tolo Habour, and the Penfold Park, Prof. Wang and his team conducted research to help environmental impact assessment for the government department. They designed and put sensors and cameras to capture images of egrets, as well as used AI to identify them. Studying egrets’ breeding behavior and their hatching periods, the team explored how to accommodate the birds’ life cycle in the construction schedule.

To help the Tree Management Office manage trees in the city, the team designed tree sensors and used AI to carry out data analytics. The system can tell if trees are tilted, thereby keeping a close watch on the health conditions of trees. They also installed the sensors on trees at the HKUST campus, as part of the Internet of Tree Things project under HKUST’s Sustainable Smart Campus as a Living Lab (SSC) initiative.

Conducting research with no boundaries

“There should be no boundaries in research; I do not limit myself when applying technology to solve problems,” he said. His research thus spans an array of disciplines.

Using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and 3D point cloud devices, his team helped to monitor air quality and prevent pollution by measuring vehicle emission. He also worked on AI-BIM (building information modeling), designing a mobile mapping system with 360-degree camera, LiDAR, and peripheral electronic components all embedded in a backpack. Users could carry it to scan buildings, find out where the cracks were by AI, and provide updates to BIM. An improved version using robots to carry the mobile mapping system is in progress with support from the Innovation and Technology Fund, thus integrating AI, robots, and human efforts.

“Many AI companies dream about replacing human beings totally, but I think AI technologies are not there yet.” With increased number of variables, AI’s trained predictions become less accurate and its performance deteriorates. “When AI makes mistakes, who is going to take the responsibility? This is a question of ethics. We still need human knowledge. Instead of having AI replace us, we should use AI as our tool.”

Documenting scarce species on campus

The nature-loving engineer has been enjoying HKUST’s campus tremendously. One day during daily morning walk, he came across a Hoopoe, the national bird of Israel that rarely appeared in Hong Kong. He thereby decided to once again assume the role of an “animal watcher”, bringing the camera with him every day, discovering and thus far documenting 63 kinds of birds on campus. On a quiet day, he even came across a barking deer on campus – yes, it was a deer with the formal name Northern Red Muntjac that barked like a dog. He put sensors to monitor tree health on campus. To share his pictures with other enthusiasts, he now hosts the Instagram page @hkustbirds (which belongs to another SSC project called “You Will See a Hoopoe”) and the Facebook page Amazing HKUST campus plants.

Many professors would find their biggest pride in students who landed on jobs in well-known universities or laboratories. Prof. Wang, on the other hand, said, “Of course I would be happy when that happens. However, my greatest achievement would be to see my students and graduates being happy and enjoying their lives.” Referring to the recent apocalyptic Netflix blockbuster Don’t Look Up, he said, “Ultimately what people do in the end is to have dinner with family members together and pray to God.” His motto is from the Bible: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Currently the Residence Master of all postgraduate halls and the Jockey Club Hall, as well as a two-time awardee of the School of Engineering Teaching Excellence Appreciation Award, Prof. Wang is often described as being nice, enthusiastic, and passionate. As the new Associate Dean who works along with Prof. MOW Wai-Ho to oversee undergraduate engineering studies, he believes his two most important missions are to recruit high-quality students among locals and non-locals alike, and to facilitate full accreditation of new undergraduate programs in Sustainable Energy Engineering, Bioengineering, and Decision Analytics.

Despite keen competition from other universities, Prof. Wang believes that HKUST’s international ranking, exchange opportunities, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), Undergraduate Student-initiated Experiential Learning (USEL) Program, student-oriented makerspace, mentorship, and counseling services will continue to attract good students. Particularly appealing is the new “Engineering with an Extended Major in Artificial Intelligence” initiative, for which engineering students undertake studies in AI-related subjects on top of their majors in a structured way.

“HKUST has an international environment; the academic freedom here ensures that students can choose to work according to their aspirations.” One example is the Individualized Interdisciplinary Major (IIM) offered by the Interdisciplinary Programs Office (IPO). As the only program of its kind in Greater China, the signature program thrives on interdisciplinary major tailor-made to students’ intellectual interests.

Whereas students in Hong Kong often focus on future career paths, Prof. Wang finds it more important to help students think one step further and acquire the skills of learning, as popular fields today might not be in hot demand a few years later. His advice to young people aspiring to be engineers: “Do not limit your potential. Be brave and try out all possibilities.”

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