When the Class of 2019 graduates cross the stage to receive their diplomas later this week, they will be representing the best ShanghaiTech has to offer. The paths they took converged for four years on campus together, and now they prepare to head off in different directions. Four students shared their journeys to and from ShanghaiTech.
Gao Hanwen- Taking the Leap
Gao Hanwen, a senior from Shandong Province, remembers visiting ShanghaiTech as a high
school senior for Open Campus Day. In a one on one interview with professors, he asked them about scientific research. “All of the physics I knew was from the exam, was from the book and that's totally different from the research. So, in the one hand, I am very interested in physics. I was confused whether the physics I knew from exams is the same as scientific research. To my surprise, they seemed to have the same story as me when they were young, when they were in university. They started to tell me their stories, and I gradually learned that research needs a very high level of knowledge, but we need to start developing it step by step.” Having that frank and encouraging conversation with ShanghaiTech professors who seemed really willing to engage him as an equal impressed Gao. “Maybe that conversation, that interview with them, gave me the most confidence about my future research and also it made me realize that Shanghai Tech is the school that cared about me.”
Studying physics at ShanghaiTech’s School of Physical Science and Technology gave Gao opportunities that would have been hard to come by at larger, more traditional universities. Gao traveled to UC Berkeley and Oxford during his summers to participate in summer study abroad sessions. While the research he did over his summer at Oxford was quite different from the research he’d been engaged in at ShanghaiTech, having to start from scratch was a useful learning experience for him, he said. “Honestly I had to read over 100 papers there, so the best thing I got there is that I learned how to do research in a new area, how to start a new direction. So now I am not afraid to do something different,” he said.
He first entered the lab in sophomore year. Starting to do research is always scary, he said, but ShanghaiTech forced him to start by himself and face the challenge. “Everyone needs their time to start from zero. But my teacher here in the Shanghai Advanced Institute, they are very helpful.”
Gao’s research at ShanghaiTech has focused on a protein in the eye. People are very sensitive to light, so the reactions in your eyes must be very quick, very fast. And now you have to use this ultrafast technique to study how you can catch light.
What Gao loves about physics is “studying a world that's totally different from your reality. But you can devote all yourself to the mysterious world, to the unknown world. Every step you make, someone never has reached before.”
Gao says that what he learned at ShanghaiTech was courage. It took courage to attend ShanghaiTech at a time when no one in his family knew anything about the brand-new university, courage to enter the lab as a second-year student, courage to go abroad to study at two different institutions, and courage to ask his girlfriend to go out with him.
Gao takes that courage with him as the first ShanghaiTech graduate to attend Brown University in the United States as a PhD student where he will do research in Physical Chemistry.
Zhang Yuxi-Learning Self-Motivation
Zhang Yuxi’s college experience didn’t start out so well. She felt disappointed when she first arrived in 2016. “The campus was really different because when I come to this university, it was very new and it didn’t look beautiful like it does now. It wasn’t beautiful yet. We had to go to the other campus,” she said.
Aside from the campus surroundings, Zhang herself felt a bit rough around the edges and unprepared for the pressure of college life. “During my first year, I didn’t even know what a GPA is, so I didn’t work hard and my GPA was very low,” she remembered. “When the school told me what my GPA was, then I know, oh there is a thing called GPA, so then I had to work very hard after my first year to make up for it.” Through her persistent hard work, Zhang’s GPA rose to a 4.0 last semester.
Zhang also wasn’t sure at first about what she wanted to study. “Before I came to ShanghaiTech and even in my first year, I really liked chemistry and wanted to change my major. After working in the lab, I realized biology is really beautiful and so I didn’t change my major. I think the thing that makes me most proud during my four years here is that I found what I really like.”
The opportunities Zhang got as a student at ShanghaiTech helped her along the way. In the summer before her senior year, Zhang participated in a summer study abroad session at UC Berkeley. “I think this kind of exchange opportunity is quite rare in other universities,” she said. She remembers that summer working in John Kuriyan’s lab as one of the more challenging experiences in her college career. She was combining classes, working in the lab and applying to 18 graduate schools all at the same time.
Curiosity has taken Zhang far and it is what she remains proudest of. After doing a small research project with a graduate student in Professor Xu Fei’s lab to solve the structure of a membrane protein, Zhang was not satisfied. She was curious about whether there was another way to stabilize the protein but the graduate students advised her to focus on what they were doing and not get distracted. Undeterred, Zhang asked Professor Xu if her idea was feasible. “Professor Xu told me to do experiments on my own to see whether my idea would work or not. So I did the experiments on my own. No one helped me, because it was my own project. I had a lot of troubles but my results showed me that the idea is feasible.” While Zhang’s knowledge level didn’t allow her to do many experiments to further her research, last year she saw a paper was published that affirmed her hypothesis and findings. “I was quite excited by that,” she remembers.
Zhang’s enthusiasm and self-motivation will carry her far. After being accepted into programs at Yale, Duke and 4 other institutions, she made the decision to start a tri-institutional PhD program in chemical biology at Rockefeller, Weill Cornell and Memorial Sloan Kettering Center in the fall.
Xie Zhiqiang- Following Your Passion
As one of just the second undergraduate class to graduate from ShanghaiTech, Xie Zhiqiang feels the immense influence he and his classmates have had on the development of the university. “We students shaped something here at the school,” he says with pride. His four years here were about constantly challenging himself and discovering new things.
Entering as a freshman, Xie started out as a chemistry major in the School of Physical Science and Technology, having done well at a national chemistry competition in high school. “But in my first year, I realized that the classes and professors in SIST were much more suitable for me,” he said, explaining why he switched majors, a choice few make at ShanghaiTech.
Xie became very involved in extracurricular activities while at ShanghaiTech, as one of the co-founders of Lavida Lab, and a founder of GeekPie_HPC, a division of the popular GeekPie club. His participation in these groups took him to competitions, including the KONE Hackathon, which his team won a gold medal at. He also found time to be part of the movie club.
The memories that he most cherishes at ShanghaiTech will be achieving a 4.0 GPA last semester, traveling to Guizhou for a Social Engagement summer program, and spending time with his girlfriend, a fellow student who will also continue on as a graduate student at ShanghaiTech.
Xie was chosen as a Microsoft Interns for Stars of Tomorrow and spent a half year in Beijing working at the company. Coming back to campus was a big change for him. “The change is more about myself not the situation,” he said, citing his personal need to find a better work-life balance and his new long distance running hobby as part of his new life.
Xie, who won a National Scholarship and will continue on at ShanghaiTech after graduation in a Master’s degree program, said even though he is staying, he expects that his graduate work will be a very different experience from his four years as an undergraduate. “I’ll switch from just learning something to targeting some problem and make some contribution. I have to question again and again what is the important question and I’ll tackle.”
Xie said that professors and deans have given him valuable advice, including one who told him to always challenge himself and try new things. If he could give incoming students just one piece of advice, he said, he would tell them, “Do something you are passionate about. That’s what it’s all about. You will feel energy from that.”
Li Yike- Trying New Things
Li Yike, a senior computer science student in the School of Information Science and Technology still remembers her first week on campus. “I felt curious about everything!” Li is always on the search for something new to try, and that may be why she decided to attend ShanghaiTech, even though the new university’s campus was still very much under construction. “I like to do new things. I didn’t know it before I came to ShanghaiTech, but now when I look back, I realize that ST has provided me with so many chances to do new things and have new experiences,” she said.
One of her favorite memories was building a mechanical walking dog with her teammates as part of a Mechatronics class in her third year. “We trained it to walk and avoid obstacles. We worked really hard for four days and the last night we stayed up all night together,” she remembered. “It was really fun to work with my classmates and you change your ideas and learn new things together. We came from two different majors, computer science and EE, so there was a lot of interdisciplinary sharing.” Her team ended up winning first place.
In contrast, “my first year was so painful,” she remembered. She hadn’t adequately prepared for a coding assignment and had to learn to code first before she could finish the assignment. That taught her about the importance of being prepared. “You’d better preview your knowledge before the semester begins,” she said.
Li has tried new things outside of her major as well. She chose to do a Finance minor on a whim, and to her surprise found skills she didn’t know she had. She joined the Tai Kwon Do club with no martial arts experience and got so good that she made it to round two of a competition.
Li’s experiences studying abroad were eye-opening she said. Li did two study abroad programs, participating in a summer program at UC Berkley and a 6 months’ internship at Carnegie Mellon. “It was really fun because the courses and education system there are really different from in China,” she said.
After returning to ShanghaiTech, Li designed a workshop to lead students through the graduate school application process. “When I was at CMU I noticed they had this kind of support but as ShanghaiTech is a new school, we didn’t have those kinds of workshops set up. We’re only the second graduating class, so we need to help the younger students prepare,” she said. The workshop had eight sessions and Li and five other students explained each step of the process.
Li will continue on for her Master’s degree at UPENN, where she’s very excited to study in one of the top three robotics programs in the US. “The professors are super cool and they are doing some really interesting things,” she said.
“Always try new things,” is the advice she would give to incoming students. “You can have a new understanding of yourself and learn what your skills are. So try new things and realize you are a multi-talented person!”