A life in the day of a PhD student in Hong Kong

10 November 2023

For his PhD research at Hong Kong University, Coşkun Güçlü is looking into the best way of rewilding Hong Kong, work which is supported by Croucher. But what exactly does a day in his life look like? Croucher News caught up with him recently to find out.

Coşkun is an early riser. He’s up by 6 or at the latest 7, grabbing a quick breakfast of dragon fruit before he heads off to work. But whereas most of us have one commute to work, Coşkun has two.

“If I’m going to the forest, I head north on the East Rail line. But if I’m due in the office or lab, I head south on the same line.”

The forest here is Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG), a nature reserve in the Northern Territories.

“If I’m heading for a day in the forest, I have to dress carefully and cover myself, especially my arms and legs. I look like a regular forest ranger and all the clothing is to protect me from the spikes and thorns on the vegetation there, which is very dense, almost impenetrable at times. I have to fight my way through, carefully pushing the plants to one side, without harming them. It’s a nature reserve, after all. You can’t just hack stuff down with a machete.”

As well as the plants, there are many insects - “wasps as big as birds!” - and spiders, as well as larger animals. “You see snakes, lizards, wild boar, feral cows, all sorts of things. ” If he’s in the forest for the day, he’ll take lunch with him. “Fortunately, the monkeys haven’t stolen it yet. But they do like playing with the scientific instruments I have with me. I have to keep an eye on them.”

Had the wildlife ever been an issue for him?

Well, the other week I looked up and realised that there was a king cobra quite close to me.

“Well, the other week I looked up and realised that there was a king cobra quite close to me. That was a bit of a concern, but I moved slowly away as you are supposed to, and it didn’t bother me.”

“Carrying out my PhD work is a bit more physically demanding than I had perhaps expected,” he told us. Coşkun had done his undergraduate studies and Masters at UCL before coming to Hong Kong. “The KFBG is certainly next level compared to roughing it in the woodlands of southern England. But I enjoy my time up there.”

Other days can find Coşkun heading south to the university, where he will check the samples of eDNA that he has taken in the KFBG. Or he might spend time doing “office work”, dealing with emails, writing up his findings or attending meetings.

“I reckon I spend a third of my time at KFBG, a third in the lab and a third in the office,” he told us. “So my days are pretty varied. Sometimes, I’ll go to all three places on the same day.”

“And when I think about it, variety is one of the most attractive things about living in Hong Kong. You can be out on a mountainside, totally alone, or in the crowds of Kowloon, all within minutes from my office.”

What had brought him here?

“I got into ecology almost by accident, through a random course I took during my undergraduate studies that helped me learn about something called succession, the process by which landscapes, including forests, regenerate themselves. I got really interested in the debate about whether regeneration of a forest should always be natural, or whether a helping hand from humans would be useful.”

“Hong Kong is a perfect place to look at that. Apart from the amazing forests themselves, which are mostly going through a form of regeneration, there are also records dating back over a hundred years of how they have changed over that time. As far as I know, that’s a unique set of records for this field of study”.

What had surprised him most about his PhD studies?

“Apart from the physicality of the work - and I call it work, rather than study - there is always the impact of the unexpected. In science, the environment you look at can change, the data can change, things just happen. You might write your initial thesis a dozen times to keep up with what you find out. That’s what happened to me, anyway. You really need to learn to be flexible.”

To relax from the rigours of his work, Coşkun plays the Turkish oud, a lute-like musical instrument with a local group. “One of the things that I love about Hong Kong is that people seem so interested in the wider world. I was pretty amazed and very happy to find oud enthusiasts to play with here.”

And what of the future?

“I’d love to do my postdoc research in Hong Kong. There’s so much to do and I would like to expand my research into the wider region if possible. But it depends where the funding will be. I’ve learnt to expect the unexpected. You never really know where you’re going to end up in this kind of work.”

Coşkun Güçlü received a grant from Croucher to support his research on forest restoration. We wrote about his work in June.