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The biggest obstacle to innovation is …

The biggest obstacle to innovation is …


Prof. Alex Wai, PolyU Vice President (Research Development) and Chair Professor of Optical Communications, has taken up the post of Vice President of the University since July 2010. In this issue, he shares his views on how to nurture students’ creativity, and the future direction of research at PolyU.

Q1: We value innovation, which is crucial for the future development of our world. But how can we nurture students to become innovative researchers?

I don’t think there is something like “12 steps to innovation” - we are not cooking a dish! In my opinion, being innovative is being different. However, we, especially Asians, are afraid of being different, perhaps because we have been raised in cultures which emphasize “harmony” and “obedience”. We think being different may affect the harmony we have enjoyed among our peers.

Further, to do something new means greater chance of failure. From my interaction with students, the biggest obstacle for them to innovate is the fear of failure. The cleverer the student, the bigger the fear is. They want to take up subjects or projects that they have confidence in getting good results.

I’ve asked my students to dare to be different, dare to try, and dare to ask why. Of course there may be failure, then find out the reasons! I always tell them: “Don’t tell me this is said by Einstein, because you’re not Einstein…don’t say that this is right because somebody else said this was right!”

I think it’s a matter of attitude, and culture, when we talk about nurturing our students’ creativity.

Q2: What is the key to successful research? Can you give some advice to the research students?

You have to like what you do and you have to devote to what you like. Pursue what you believe in, whatever it is. If you think a problem is worth solving, then dig into it with all your energy – be committed.

Q3: How do you envisage the research development of PolyU in the next few years?

Without doubt, our research achievements over the years have been phenomenal. As our society is facing big issues relating to energy, environment, and sustainable development that require in-depth research, PolyU will continue to inject resources to address these issues, hoping to create an impact to our society, our country and the world. These areas will require cross-disciplinary efforts rather than individuals focusing on one specific area.

PolyU has identified “Support for the development in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) Region” as one of its four priority areas. The PRD region is going through a transition from labour intensive and low technology to medium/high technology, high value added industries and a knowledge-based economy. This transition requires more brain power – which PolyU and Hong Kong have in abundance. Therefore, PolyU will step up our academic and industrial collaborations to support the long-term development of the region over the next few years.

Q4: What are PolyU’s advantages in doing research ?

PolyU has diversity in its staff and students, and an extensive network of local, national and international contacts. While cultural bias due to upbringing can often limit the way one thinks, cross-cultural collaboration can bring a new perspective to problem solving. Through such kind of collaboration, we aim to stimulate innovation which will benefit the future development of our research.

Q5: You have extensive research experience, including 15 years of academic and industrial research in the US, and have actively contributed to the field of fiber optic communications. What is the driving force behind your research endeavours?

Conducting research, writing proposals, producing papers, and attending conferences are all means to an end. But what is the end? The end is helping society and mankind. This is what is important, this is what it is all about, and this is the driving force.



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