Science Ace Chen Hung-jen
Learning What Limitless Means
A two-time international science competition winner talks about gaining inspiration, the pleasures of teamwork, and the unbounded road ahead.
Learning What Limitless MeansBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 460 )
At age 18 Chen Hung-jen won a grand award in the world's largest pre-college science fair competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, with a life science project.
Yet unlike the vast majority of Taiwanese students, Chen has never set foot in a cram school. "Cramming smothers inspiration. It's the killer of science education," Chen firmly believes. Currently an undergraduate in medicine at National Taiwan University, Chen won the gold medal in the 17th International Biology Olympiad in 2006 when he was a high school junior. One year later Chen and his 12th-grade classmates won the Team Project Best of Category in Life Sciences at the 58th Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a project titled "Searching the Gene Essential for Drosophila Development: Identification of Escargot." While students at Chen's school, Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School, have won numerous science contests and awards, Chen distinguished himself with awards at both a science Olympiad and an international science fair.
The subjects that pique Chen's curiosity range far and wide. "I've always had an interest in science, but I'm also interested in literature, music and sports," he says, pausing for a moment before adding – he has no interest in eating bitter melon.
And he is not just interested in literature, music and sports – he is actively involved.
Chen does not fit the stereotype of the pale, exhausted medical student who spends his days in laboratories and behind books. Instead, he sports a good tan and an infectious smile that indicates a vibrant enthusiasm for life. Now in his fourth year of university studies, Chen spent the summer break cycling around Taiwan. He has climbed two of Taiwan's most famous summits, Jade Mountain and Snow Mountain. He sings in a choir, is a member of the track and field team and the table tennis team, has a lifeguard license and still finds time to give swimming lessons to mentally and physically handicapped people.
Most recently, he got into making pudding. Chen got himself some recipes from the Internet and then did everything by the book, using his mother's rice cooker. Of course, he did not stop there, but went on to experiment with different flavors. "I tried making pudding with red bean filling, but unfortunately taro filling was a failure," says Chen, his voice thick with regret.
While "competitiveness" is today's mantra, Chen believes that team spirit is much more important. He says the greatest joy in his life was not winning the gold medal, but learning in the process of the competition to work as part of a team, in which classmates helped one another move forward. "You can only make progress if you cooperate. The most valuable experience in my three years of high school was that you can still be competitive when you share," he says. Teamwork and competitiveness are two sides of the same coin.
Chen, who did not join any gifted classes until late in senior high school, now has his sights set on being a scientist.
Following are excerpts of an interview with Chen, in which he recounts how he got into science and why he hopes to pursue a career in research.
My Mom is a housewife and my father is a mid-level manager at an electronics firm. From childhood on, they didn't do anything to foster any specific talent in me, such as squeezing me into a gifted class. I went to Da Feng Elementary School and Wu-Feng Junior High School, which are both public schools in (the Taipei suburb of) Xindian.
When I was little I often went hiking with my family to Zhinan Temple in Muzha or Wufeng Mountain (in Xindian). On these outings my sister and I would observe the plants and flowers. We were in contact with nature, which became a very major influence in my life. In my memory, from kindergarten on, my mom and dad would often "dump" me off at the library, and I'd read books all by myself. Back then I was most interested in encyclopedias. So I read through the entire 13 volumes of the Chinese Children's Encyclopedia. I finished it in elementary school, which instilled in me a habit of looking for information.
Strengthening Logical Thinking to Build Skills
When I joined the gifted class in the math-science track at Jianguo High School, my horizon seemed to open up suddenly, because I encountered so many people who were more outstanding than me. As a freshmen my schoolmate Lai Tsai-ta and I wanted to "have fun" at science fairs, so we went to see Dr. Y. Henry Sun of the Institute of Molecular Biology at Academia Sinica and started our drosophila fruit fly research. During that summer break we spent every day in the lab, come rain or shine. Unfortunately, we were not selected to represent our school in the science fair.
In 11th grade I won the gold medal in the International Biology Olympiad. Although this guaranteed me a space at university, I returned to the lab out of interest and conducted research on Drosophila genes with my schoolmates. We wanted to find out the reason for split-hand/split-foot malformation (a genetic disorder) and ways to treat it.
The science Olympiads and science fairs are two different avenues involving different models of thinking. I once wrote an essay telling younger students that these are two very different roads. The media or schools probably assess one's merits based on the number of awards won. But we should look at our personal growth during that period of time from a lifelong perspective. Competitions make you understand how to grasp the main points, to get the gist of a paper. But science fairs are about grasping the thread of an idea from a pile of clues. They emphasize logical thinking and deduction. Up to now, I have always been working on strengthening my abilities in that area.
Teamwork the Key to Success
The most important thing I learned at science fairs is teamwork. Once an older student warned me that competitions are a lonely endeavor, but I never felt that way. The first sentence that my homeroom teacher in senior high school told us was, "Our class is going to try to win on the teamwork side. And your greatest resources are the people around you." Everyone had the same goal and discussed things together. My science fair teammate helped me review the week before I left for the Olympiad, and through his example I also learned to deal with my own emotions and not to suddenly lose my temper.
After winning my guaranteed space at university, I kept thinking about exactly which road I should take. Because of my participation in the science fair, I came into contact with medical science. After gaining an initial understanding of medicine, I felt that immunology and neurology are very interesting. In the future I would like to be a scientist, to continue doing research, because discovering new things has always been my biggest motivation in learning.
I want to tell all parents to let go and let their children enjoy learning, let them pursue their own interests, don't block them from dabbling in what they want to do, because there's no way to know how much potential your child has.
If you first set limits, you'll never know what limitless mean.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz