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Alumni of the Month: Professor Paul Cheung (PhD EEE)

The love of science, culture, diversity... and pens!

Paul is currently an Honorary Professor in Department of EEE and in CS at HKU. He also teaching courses in the MSc in E-Commerce and Internet Computing programme, a degree he started in 1999 and served as Programme Director until his retirement. He is not only an ICL alumni who has devoted his career to education and research at HKU, but also a past chairman and current patron of ICAAHK, a history and culture enthusiast, and a continuous learner who stays curious at all times. He is also a professional pen-maker and founded a startup – Pen Makers Workshop. Read on to learn about Paul’s philosophy on teaching, his hobbies, and how Imperial has shaped his academic journey!

Are there any interesting or memorable recollections from your time at Imperial which have created lasting impacts on your career and/or personal life?

Gender equality has improved a lot from our time – back when I was still at Imperial, there were only 2 girls in our cohort... Joking aside, Imperial did have a foresight to incorporate humanities and social sciences in its science and engineering curriculum from the early days, when well-rounded education was not yet common in UK. At Imperial, we got to learn different engineering disciplines before specialising in one, my twin brother Peter and I also took courses on economics, psychology, sociology and German. Those non-technical courses were the most memorable classes for me!

Learning wasn’t just paper-based, we would be able to put our knowledge and skills into practice to solve real problems taking into consideration all technical, economical and social elements. One occasion of such would be a group project that we have done to study the “Meals-on-Wheels for Elderly” project for the London Borough of Hackney. In this project, we had to use our technical knowledge to redesign the ovens, apply our operational research skills to plan for the best routes for the delivery vehicles, while critiqued the management structure, analysed the cost benefit of the programme and studied the emotion and psychological impacts to the service recipients.

Soft skills are becoming more and more important in the future of work. Many tasks and processes may be automated or simplified using technology – for example, Artificial Intelligence is likely to make many current jobs redundant – we would still rely on humans to show empathy and understanding of emotional needs. I am grateful that my education at Imperial gave me the wide perspectives which helped me shape my personal and professional development.

You have taught university students for over 40 years, what is your philosophy as an educator?

In the past, many of us were inheritors of “meritocracy”, we were all proud to be Imperial College students because we had good enough grades to get into a top university. We were the cream of the crop. Inspired by “The Tyranny of Merit” by Michael Sandel of Harvard University, I started to rethink and question whether one’s value was assessed by their societal rank, the contributions that they have made to the society, or something else. To ensure meritocracy doesn’t become a moral hubris, we need to redefine what “success” means to our society.

In 1996, Jacques Delors presented the idea of the four pillars of education at a UNESCO conference: (i) Learning to be; (ii) Learning to know; (iii) Learning to do; and (iv) Learning to live together. Learning is a lifelong process, and these four pillars take place repeatedly in a cycle. In fact, way before 1996, a very similar concept was also introduced by Confucius in “The Great Learning” (古之欲明明德於天下者,先治其國;欲治其國者,先齊其家;欲齊其家者,先修其身;欲修其身者,先正其心;欲正其心者,先誠其意;欲誠其意者,先致其知,致知在格物。《禮記·大學》). This is exactly the motto of the HKU, inspired by the wisdom passed on all the way back 3000 years in Chinese history.

You founded the Marathon Team in HKU, and it has grown immensely over the years. What made you start this team in the beginning?

16 years ago, my friend’s daughter passed away after battling Sarcoma, he organised a charity cycling event in Denmark to raise funds for sarcoma research. I happened to be in Europe that year for my son’s graduation, so I agreed to the challenge to cycle 150km in 3 days. After the event, I wanted to keep exercising, and that’s when I signed up for my first Standard Chartered Marathon 10km race with some of my former students. The following year, we gathered a group of 1,200 alumni, staff and students from HKU who joined different races – we were the first Hong Kong university to form a team of this scale. Our group expanded over the years and we reached a maximum of 3,000+ contestants in a year.

Here is an interesting story to share about the Marathon Team. One of my ex-students from the MSc E-Commerce course, Pauline, was not a regular runner before joining the Marathon Team. Since joining us, she discovered the joy of exercising and went on to do a Sports Science course at CUHK. She is now a sports coach!

You are also a pen-maker and founded the Pen Makers Workshop – can you tell us about it?

It all started in the year when my twin brother Peter gave me a handmade-pen as birthday gift, I started learning how to make pens. Then a few years later, I received an email from my friend Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard University about an article on The Guardian which reported that The University of Cambridge is considering allowing students to use their laptops for exams because their handwriting was not legible – and Harvard was apparently considering doing the same! It has become apparent that even top students from top universities are losing their ability to write with a pen and paper! This was when I decided to start the Pen Makers Workshop after my retirement to rekindle the love for writing with pens.

Do you have any advice for our students or younger graduates from Imperial?

I am lucky that my job allows me to meet different people, across generations, many of whom have since achieved great heights in their respective careers. I keep my students close to my heart and we meet as a group every now and then. However, my observation is that growing up in the digital age where we are exposed to different cultures and information daily, it is sometimes challenging to find our roots and identity. This is a common and ongoing struggle for many people.

I was raised in the colonial Hong Kong, educated in the UK, worked briefly in the UK before returning to Hong Kong in 1978 where I spent nearly all my career life. With this mixed background, I have come to realise that finding your identity starts with embracing the local language, its history and culture. Looking ahead, I believe Hong Kong remains a very exciting place for R&D, as a test bed for many innovative ideas. If we look beyond Hong Kong, the Mainland and the GBA will be a strong platform and market for more research opportunities in the region. Hong Kong has indeed fulfilled our historical mission as a window for the Mainland to the World. Our next stage is to find our new mission to be one of the most open, progressive, and cosmopolitan cities in China for the advancement of our country, the Region and the World.


"The Tyranny of Merit" by Michael Sandel:

Pen Makers Workshop:

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