Professor Christopher Chao, PolyU’s new Vice President (Research and Innovation), and a leading expert in thermal and environmental engineering, talked enthusiastically about how an “inspiring” tiny insect could point to one of the “next big things” in frontier research.


The insect – a Saharan silver ant – lives deep in the North African desert and is considered to be one of the fastest bugs on the planet.


“Why can a Saharan silver ant survive in the desert? It has a lot to do with the surface structure of its body. It is able to dissipate energy very effectively using thermal radiation,” Professor Chao said in his new office.


“This is just one example of bioinspired technology – an up and coming frontier research area focused on how observations from nature can generate new technological insights and applications,” he explained.


The ant story also underscores the importance of cross-disciplinary research and education to Professor Chao, who re-joined PolyU in September.


He said fostering cross-disciplinary and then inter-disciplinary research as well as forging an ecosystem that motivates and cultivates an innovative mindset are among his top priorities to elevate PolyU’s research and innovation activities to the next level.


After getting his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at The University of California, Berkeley, Professor Chao returned to Hong Kong and joined PolyU as a lecturer at the Department of Building Services Engineering from 1995 to 1997.


“At that time, the institute had just been upgraded from the Hong Kong Polytechnic to The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and it was thinking of moving into high-level research. The research environment was not as active as what you can see nowadays, and at that time only a small number of people had received an RGC research grant,” he recalled.


Re-joining PolyU twenty-four years later, Professor Chao said the overall research landscape at the University has improved substantially.


“Now we have a lot of research activities going into frontier areas. We are able to actually lead in certain fields, coming up with real solutions to very challenging problems,” he said.


“Observing the campus invokes good memories of the past and the feeling of a bright future ahead.”


Crossing disciplines, STEM and non-STEM, to foster inter-disciplinary knowledge


Cross-disciplinary research “has become a must” to solve emerging societal problems and to meet future research challenges, Professor Chao said. Furthermore, disciplines other than science and technology have an important role to play.


“Non-STEM areas are important. I hope to see good integration of STEM and non-STEM areas at PolyU,” Professor Chao added. “For instance, research in smart ageing is not just about technology but also involves many aspects of social sciences. You need to care about people’s feelings, their behaviour, and their ways of communicating with other people. It won’t work with technology alone.”


“We have a School of Design, for example, which is very unique. If we can link up our design people and our engineering people, we can make a big contribution and impact,” he said.


“If a comprehensive university like PolyU only focuses on STEM, I think it will be missing a lot of opportunities. In fact, if we are able to integrate some STEM elements into non-STEM areas, the chance of getting big research funding will be greatly enhanced,” Professor Chao stated.


“From cross-disciplinary research, we can move further into inter-disciplinary research to open up even new disciplines and domains of knowledge in the future,” he added.


Innovative Ecosystem


Professor Chao believes having an ecosystem conducive to an innovative mindset is equally crucial.


“Without an innovative mindset, we will just be repeating what we have been doing in the past and following other people’s footsteps,” he said. “I will work along with different PolyU stakeholders, including our alumni and external partners, to support innovation.”


“There is a lot we can do to build a robust ecosystem at the University. For example, by promoting a strong research culture, promoting intellectual exchange among different stakeholders, and even making the campus a testbed for students’ research applications,” he suggested.


“We should also encourage undergraduates to view research and innovation as something they would potentially like to pursue in life, and we should cultivate their interest in research from the very start of their university studies,” the Vice President said, adding that he would like to see more local students pursuing PhDs.


He said PolyU has many unique advantages in its people and facilities to excel in innovation and knowledge creation. Collaborating with industry is also crucial in the process.


“We have an Industrial Centre that no other universities in Hong Kong have – it helps researchers and students build up their prototypes and offers unparalleled support to a variety of research activities. These are essential for us to excel.”


Next Big Thing


Looking ahead to the next couple of decades, Professor Chao said there are a lot of exciting knowledge breakthroughs that will advance research in the next generation, citing bioinspired technologies as just one of the many examples.


“We can learn a lot from nature, from insects, from birds in order to address complex issues. We will be able to replicate existing surfaces or structures in nature and apply them to our daily applications.”


“If we can adopt bioinspired technology, say, in advanced manufacturing processes, we can solve a lot of problems,” he explained.


Neuroscience is another example, he added.


“In chip manufacturing and computer development, we are moving into neuromorphic computing, seeking to mimic the way that our brain is operating into computing, so that we can make a computer faster and more effective in generating the wisdom we need,” he said.


“And everybody is now talking about AI and Big Data. We have not yet reached the peak of generating knowledge in these two areas. I think in the next few years, industries will be moving into these areas with different levels of maturity,” he added.


“So, from studying how our brains collect information, all the way to learning from nature, we will be able to create a new frontier for future research and development.”