So I’m talking to Sean Chen, a CDNIS graduate of the Class of 2016. I am speaking with Sean on the campus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he is a PhD candidate. MIT is one of the leading universities in the world, constantly ranked at the top with a specialism in science and technology but with a strong humanities angle.
Sean, it’s great to see you, can you tell me a little bit about your journey to where you are now? What specifically are you doing?
“I am doing my PhD here at MIT in the field of physical oceanography, through the joint program with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. For my PhD, I’m expanding our understanding of the physics of the deep ocean and the roles it plays in Earth’s ever-changing climate system.”
How far are you into your research and how long have you been here?
“I’m in my third year of what is supposedly a five-year commitment, so I’m about halfway through, but I think my research is really just kicking off more in depth into this topic.”
What is the workload like for you?
“After two years of coursework diving deep into the theories of fluid dynamics, you quickly realise you have a lot less time than expected, and I lead a range of different research projects, working with other researchers, as well as teaching and supporting some undergraduate students. It’s hard work but very rewarding.”
It’s not easy to get into an institution like this so you must’ve done something pretty impressive prior to this and I know that you attended the University of Bristol in the UK. Can you tell me a bit about your time there and your experiences in Bristol?
“I think for me it was far more than the traditional thought of going to university, studying and just coming out with a degree kind of experience; it was more like being completely immersed with a group of friends sharing similar interests and life vision. We would go out and have a lot of fun, being completely immersed in the culture there, and at the same time, in a university setting like Bristol you get to meet many excellent researchers and connect with them personally. Unlike some of the large universities, the undergraduates and postgraduates would mix quite easily as it was a small department. In my cohort, we really knew and supported each other. It was fantastic. Of course, I was in the Earth Sciences department, and so there weren’t as many students, especially students from outside Britain. Because of this, they did pay a lot of attention to students, and we had a lot of fieldwork and research opportunities that helped me develop a wide skill set.”
“Many of the lecturers were at the top of their fields and well connected with colleagues in other institutions around the world, so we were constantly exposed to leading ideas and methods. By forming close connections with them, you gradually realise that their networks help you find a lot of opportunities and open up doors to all sorts of possibilities, and they genuinely do their best to help you achieve what you want.”
“I’ve heard about experiences at other, some might say ‘better universities’ in a traditional sense from my friends and they were always telling me that they were more competitive environments, but Bristol was never quite like that to me; most people were friendly, and we would always come together to work something out and they want the best for you and give you the opportunity to explore, focusing on what and how you are learning.”
“Beyond learning, I’ve had an excellent group of peers that I maintain both personal and working relationships with. Now a few years after graduating, they’ve become a very important part of my life, both personally and professionally.”
Did they give you any support when you were looking to do your own research degree such as helping you write a proposal?
“They didn’t sit down and help me write one from scratch, because a proposal is something that has to come from you, but they would provide useful guidance, look at what I was writing, and make helpful suggestions. They might suggest that maybe not to write this way, but perhaps another way so that it is more catchy, for example, or put more details here and also just helpful constructive feedback. My proposal was accepted by several institutions, so it was definitely helpful.”
Can you think back to when you were an IB student at Canadian International School of Hong Kong so many years ago; what are your best memories about your time at CDNIS?
“One of my best memories was being in the geography class taught by Ms Safaya, and it’s remained a very specific memory because that was actually the underpinning of what I’m doing today. It was in my Grade 11 class, and I was doing my first unit exam that day. The topic was on marine geography, and the question was asking me to explain the global circulation in the ocean and how it works. I couldn’t formulate my answer to the question in the exam, and so I panicked and just put down some bullet-points. I scored 0.5 out of 4 for that question, and Ms Safaya wrote on the front page “see me after class”. “God, what did I get myself into?” I said to myself. So later that day I met with her and was able to explain that I had so many thoughts but because of exam conditions and I didn’t know what to do. I was fascinated by the topic, and that was the beginning of a long friendship and a love for the subject. I’ve been intrigued by the depth and breadth of that question ever since, and today my top research topic is exactly on the mechanism driving the circulation of the global ocean and how it modulates the climate system over time. I have stayed in touch with Ms Safaya for many years since I graduated.”
“Another fond memory of my IB days was being out in the mountains of Sai Kung and Lantau, hiking with the HKAYP club, short for the Hong Kong Award for Young People. It is an internationally recognized award, known in Britain as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. We were part of the very first group in CDNIS to take part in HKAYP, and I was the captain of the silver award team. Being fully immersed in the natural wonder of Hong Kong was some of the happiest times during my IB years. Beyond the concrete urban landscape, Hong Kong in fact has some of the most spectacular geological sites in the world. Nature brought me peace and calm, and I slowly realised that the Earth is a huge laboratory itself, from which there is so much more we can learn and appreciate beyond the classroom.”
You probably remember that at the time the IB diploma was quite a tough course for high school students to take. But you completed it and did quite well, so, do you have any words of advice for those students back at CDNIS who are taking it now?
“Sure, what I always advise students starting the DP is to know that it’s feeding you with a lot of information so you need to discover strategies that allow you to break down bigger chunks of knowledge into smaller pieces. One particular skill that DP helps you develop is how to prioritise what is important and how to manage your time around so many different tasks. Another way to think about it is how you can make connections among all the different pieces and integrate your knowledge across different topics or even disciplinary boundaries. That way, not only do you understand the details of a specific topic, but you also get to see how it connects with others on a bigger picture. When you don’t understand something, do ask questions, and ask a lot of questions. And lastly, make sure you take breaks, both physically and mentally, as it helps you reflect and explore what you love doing. Go outside, enjoy nature, pursue your hobbies, stay curious, and be happy.”
That’s really great advice Sean, thank you. It was great to see you today and I hope we can get you back on campus the next time you are in Hong Kong.