Early exposure to hard research lets students explore their passions | Duke Kunshan University

Early exposure to hard research lets students explore their passions

November 12, 2019


Sophomore students Aiya Kuchukova (left) and Hsien-Yao Chee are among scores of Duke Kunshan students who tackled research projects in their freshmen year

When Hsien-Yao Chee began analyzing mountains of health data for a freshman research project last winter, it never crossed his mind that the findings might enlighten experienced researchers or the wider public.

Using data from the U.S. National Nutrition and Health Examination Survey, Chee and his study partner, Evelyn Lim, discovered that adults age 45 or older who sleep for fewer than six hours or more than eight hours have poorer renal function, leaving them at a greater risk of chronic kidney disease.

After seeing the results, the duo’s faculty mentors, environmental health scientist John Ji and global-health expert Chenkai Wu, encouraged them to submit their findings in a paper to an academic journal.

“When our professors suggested writing a paper, it was definitely a surprise,” said Chee, who now is putting the finishing touches on the paper. “It gave me a renewed sense of self-belief and a feeling that anything is possible if I put in the time and effort and commit to the process.”

Chee and Lim, both from Malaysia, are among scores of Chinese and international undergraduate students who have worked closely with faculty at Duke Kunshan on a wide variety of research and independent study projects.

By the end of the 2018-19 academic year, about 20 percent of undergraduates were engaged in some form of research with professors, an extremely high percentage, said Scott MacEachern, Duke Kunshan’s interim vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Many more students are also taking part in research projects this year – with faculty advisers, in laboratories and in the field – that could lead to published work.

“Rich and meaningful research experiences are a central element in fostering intellectual and creative development, and they provide invaluable practical experience,” MacEachern said. “The exact shape that research may take will probably be somewhat different for every student, but it will be significant.”

Duke Kunshan’s research centers offer many undergraduate research opportunities. The Humanities Research Center, for example, has projects focused on planetary ethics and artificial intelligence (AI), freedom, and health, among others.

Meanwhile, the Data Science Center has seen rewarding results from Data+X, an initiative that matched small groups of students – two or three at most – with faculty mentors to conduct interdisciplinary research over 14 weeks. Topics ranged from chronic diseases to the environment to Chinese classical art.


Chee and his study partner, Evelyn Lim, present their research on kidney disease last semester with faculty mentors Chenkai Wu (back left) and John Ji

Uncharted territory

In addition to receiving independent study credits for taking part in research projects, a major draw for most students are the intangible benefits that come from working shoulder-to-shoulder with accomplished researchers.

“When I first started, I definitely felt slightly overwhelmed, largely due to the fact that I was in unchartered territory. But all my mentors have been supportive and eager to teach me the ropes,” said Chee, who is working this year on a project under virologist Benjamin Anderson in the Global Health Research Center (GHRC).

“I’m learning new things all the time and am in constant awe of the skill, insightfulness and intelligence on display by my mentors, which drives me to better myself.”

Shortly after ending freshman year, Jiyang Tang was among a group of students recruited by the Speech and Multimodal Intelligent Information Processing (SMIIP) Lab led by Ming Li, associate professor of computer and electrical engineering. Over the summer, Tang helped write an automatic speech recognition system using the Python programming language.

Tang said he was surprised how hands-on Li was with the project.

“I thought he’d be too busy to teach, but professor Li made a great effort to prepare the lectures and answer questions, and he replied to every message and spent a lot of time explaining things,” he said. “His method is to combine abstract concepts with practical implementation, which helped me understand much more clearly than merely throwing out a couple of formulas.”

Tang said the lab gave him the opportunity to better understand machine learning and related mathematical concepts, which motivated him to look deeper into software engineering as well as subjects he had previously not had much interest in, such as physics.

This semester, he has been working with the SMIIP Lab to collect data on Chinese birds to build a image-recognition system that could form part of a smartphone app for bird-watchers.


May Thongthum works with the Global Health Research Center and is considering medical school after graduation

For May Thongthum and Aiya Kuchukova, carrying out research with faculty members largely highlighted the importance of independent thought and self-motivation.

Thongthum, a sophomore from Thailand, is a student worker at the GHRC and has been systematically reviewing swine pathogens in China with an aim to inform policymakers and improve biosecurity.

“I was informed ahead of time that I was expected to be independent and responsible,” she said. “Independence in research means being able to manage your time and the progress of the project. We should have the confidence to make a decision, evaluate and report back responsibly at an appropriate time.”

Kuchukova, from Kazakhstan, took an independent study project last academic year with Peter Pickl, a visiting math professor from the Ludwig Maximilian University, Germany.

It was her first time working one-on-one with a professor, and the subject matter was advanced for a freshman: Vitali sets; measure theory, specifically Lebesgue measures; and how measure theory grows into probability theory.

“I was a bit nervous, afraid that I would fail,” she said. “But I enjoyed the freedom that the professor gave me. It taught me a lot, and I think it’s important to be able to read and find materials on your own.”

Chee’s mentor Wu, assistant professor of global health, has worked with more than a dozen undergraduates on research projects. He described them as highly motivated and ingenious, saying that they have been able to quickly learn a variety of skills, such as data management, data analysis, academic tables and figures, and writing up research findings.

He added that he hopes the work will yield multiple papers.

Major commitment

Creating opportunities for students to explore research and creative expression from the first few months of their freshman year right up to completion of their Signature Work as seniors is a key element of Duke Kunshan’s liberal arts program.

Signature Work encourages students to engage in experiential learning that leads to new knowledge or products for audiences in scholarly fields or in the private and public sectors. During sophomore year, when students declare a major, they will work with advisers and faculty mentors to decide a problem or issue to tackle and to develop a pathway that includes thematically linked courses, electives, co-curricular activities such as field work or internships, and two capstone courses in which they will create a substantial end product.

This entire journey is captured in an e-portfolio that can be shared with graduate schools and prospective employers.

The main goal of providing research opportunities is to allow students to dive deeper into an interest area and test whether it really is something they would want to commit to as a major, and even beyond.

Haozhe Zhang has been taking part in an AI project that uses deep learning to recognize the characteristics of kunqu, a classical form of song drama associated with the Kunshan and Suzhou area. He said the experience only confirmed his desire to devote himself to data science.

However, for Tang, working at the SMIIP Lab helped him see an alternative path. Before starting at Duke Kunshan, he had studied software development for about five years and become skilled in multiple programming technologies.


Jiyang Tang is helping the SMIIP Lab to build a smartphone app that can recognize different birdsong

“Until professor Li invited me to study machine learning, I didn’t know whether I should major in computer science or data science,” he said. “But it became clear that an interdisciplinary subject like data science is exciting, challenging and interesting. Since then, I’ve been working toward the goal of being a data scientist.”

Thongthum said she joined the GHRC because she wants to major in global health, either in the biology or molecular bioscience track, and is considering medical school after graduation.

“Working with the research center not only provides the opportunity to develop essential skills as a researcher but also has given me a perception of the real-world situation,” she said. “I have to consider why my project is significant to society. Moreover, there are many external factors that determine the direction of a research project, such as financial support, facilitative availability and the ongoing situation in the real world.”

Whatever the motivation, undergraduate students often find that taking part in research projects is an eye-opening experience, academically and personally.

Chee said his work on the kidney study and with the GHRC has taught him to view the world through an objective lens, realizing and understanding his own biases while examining issues in a deeper, more profound way.

“I encourage all students – freshmen and sophomores – to take part in the different research opportunities available on campus,” he said. “Just identify the topics that interest you and don’t be afraid to reach out to the professors in the field.

“Shoot your shot,” Chee added. “Winning is only for the brave.