A conversation with Deputy Council Chairman Dr Lawrence Li Kwok-chang ― Finding opportunities in times of crisis
Dr Lawrence Li Kwok-chang has been a member of the PolyU Council since April 2010. He took up the role of Treasurer of the University in April 2015 and became Deputy Council Chairman in January 2019. A specialist in Ear, Nose and Throat Surgery, Dr Li also serves on several government committees and professional bodies.
What changes have you seen at the University during the years that you have served on the PolyU Council?
The changes I have witnessed have taken place not just in PolyU, but also in society, and in how the University ﬁts in with the times. In the past, PolyU was under the radar, despite making contributions to society on various fronts. But in recent times, the University has become more visible. For example, in the ﬁght against the COVID-19 pandemic, PolyU researchers developed the rapid automated multiplex diagnostic system, which can identify COVID-19 in an hour in a very cost-eﬀective way. We also made face and eye shields for Hong Kong’s frontline medical workers. The ﬁrst batch of face shields were made just 10 days after the design was ﬁnalised. This kind of work shows PolyU’s value to society, and connects us with the life of the city.
What special ingredient do you think has made PolyU a top university?
PolyU has always changed with the times. The world is now solutions driven, which means that solutions need to be driven by demand. Today, AI is a major focus of attention and it opens a whole new world for the engineering discipline, which is one of the strengths of this University.
In the same way, education must have a purpose. In the past, Hong Kong education was utility driven, which makes personal development very diﬃcult. But each person is diﬀerent. Therefore, education needs to allow students to develop as a whole person, not just to become technically competent. It is about opening students’ minds. Holistic education is another of PolyU’s strengths.
What attributes and attitude would you encourage PolyU students to develop during their university years? What advice would you give them?
I encourage students to have an open mind. University is a place where you are able to ask questions, to ﬁnd direction, to explore. I also encourage them to develop a vision and leadership skills. In this respect, mentorship can be very helpful, particularly if the process starts by asking the students what their aims are, and making the mentorship match based on that.
Contributing to society is also very important. If students are in a position to help others, they should take advantage of opportunities that broaden their horizons and allow them to get to know people from diﬀerent backgrounds. Serving others also helps instil humility in young people.
Could you share one of your achievements as a PolyU Council Member?
I was previously tasked with the role of Chairman of the Investment Committee, making sure the University’s ﬁnances came right. When I took on this role, it was after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and we had lost funding. We needed to establish ﬁnancial stability to make sure we could perform the University’s core functions, and be transparent, as we were subject to outside independent review of our investment strategies. It’s all down to risk management of the investment portfolio. This is not diﬃcult for me as a doctor, since I deal with the more diﬃcult risk management of life and death every day. The whole concept of the University investment is to support its education and research functions, and PolyU has been doing very well ﬁnancially.
The world is currently going through a very difficult time. Can you share any advice with PolyU students and staff on how to deal with and alleviate stress? Do you have a motto to share?
You have to have hope. We can’t retain the good times, and the diﬃcult times will also pass, but you do need to have a vision of where to go. It can help to look at things from an historical perspective and to see how knowledge and events build on each other, and diﬀerent solutions evolve and emerge in their own time. One of my mottos is “In crisis, you evolve.”
What personal habits do you think are most important to cultivate?
I am actually fairly disciplined. I get up in the morning and do half an hour of cross-training before going to the oﬃce to see patients. Exercise is always important. You need good health to have the strength to do things.
Is there a particular book or philosophy that you would like to recommend?
I would like to mention a book, published in 2019, called The Age of Living Machines: How Biology will Build the Next Technology Revolution, by Susan Hockﬁeld, a neuroscientist and former president of MIT. It describes the marriage of biology and engineering to add value and produce new technologies and products. From this book, I can see that a university should take a continuous development view – a clearly argued, carefully considered long-term view, with a deﬁned destination. My most important takeaway from this book is the vision and commitment of a predominantly science-orientated university that is dedicated to society, and how it can make a diﬀerence.