Illustration inspired by the 2023 Hang Lung Mathematics Gold Award project titled "On the Properties of the Semigroup Generated by the RL Fractional Integral"

Croucher and the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards

14 May 2024

Over the last twenty years, a number of Croucher scholars or awardees have started their adventure at an early age in science with a prize or special mention at the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards. Croucher News recently interviewed the organiser of the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards, Susan Wong, and a number of the Croucher awardees who’d been involved in the Hang Lung Awards.

First, we spoke to Susan Wong, who is the general manager in charge of special projects at Hang Lung Properties Limited. She has been with the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards since they began in 2004. The idea came from the Honorary Chair of Hang Lung Properties, Ronnie C. Chan. “He believes in the importance of research and in dialogue and exchange of ideas, and he has a deep respect for mathematics and mathematicians,” Wong told us. “He’s also keen to support younger people and encourage them to realise their creative potential in mathematics.”

The awards were initially supported by Chinese University of Hong Kong and especially Professor Shing-Tung Yau, a Fields Medal winner, who was instrumental in its design and inception. “As far as we know, this was the first example of an award focusing on mathematical research at the school level in Asia,” Wong told us. “For the first competition, we worked hard to get support from teachers. We went around, going to school halls and doing road shows. We also mobilised the math departments in the universities in Hong Kong because a lot of their students are now math teachers. And luckily, we had over 100 entries in the first year!” Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is the current partner of the Hang Lung Awards.

Winners of the 2023 Hang Lung Mathematics Gold Award on stage with the HK Secretary for Education Christine Choi and Professor Richard Schoen.

Entries can be made by individuals or in teams, with forming teams being the more popular option. The entrants develop their own research project under the guidance of their school maths teacher. “It’s a great way of pushing the more able students to a higher level. Self-guided research in maths is not something they’ll have done before, commented Wong. “It’s also beneficial and attractive to the teachers,” she added. “Many of them go above and beyond in supporting their students. I think they often feel re-ignited with their original love for maths,” she said. “We’re very grateful to them.”

Wong sees a strong value in the way the Awards’ focus on self-directed research nurtures deeper, creative thinking among a target audience often accustomed these days to the “immediate gratification” of social media. And she sees the awards as supporting the development of scientists more generally, not only mathematicians; they also encourage and train people who decide to embark on engineering, computer science, bio-engineering, and other fields.

We then spoke to Croucher scientists who’d won prizes at the Hang Lung Mathematics Awards.

David Bai is a mathematician who’s pursuing his PhD research in algebraic geometry at Yale with the support of a Croucher scholarship. He won a Gold Award in the 2018 Hang Lung Mathematics Awards. Bai describes the experience of winning the Gold Award and the Croucher Scholarship as “highly motivational.” His advice to budding young mathematicians is simple: Lose your fear. “Maths concepts can seem scary at first, but once you get into them, they’re not as scary as they look.”

Chi Cheuk Tsang is a postdoctoral researcher in mathematics at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). His current area of research is low-dimensional topology. Tsang won an Honourable Mention in the 2014 Hang Lung Mathematics Award. He told us about his and his teammates’ motivation for entering the competition: “We just wanted to have fun, basically, and weren’t aiming to win anything. And it was fun. And I think it was a really good chance to just have a taste of what math research was like.” He described subsequently being awarded the Croucher Scholarship in 2018 as an “affirmation that I was on the right track.”

Owen Ko is a neuroscientist who’s currently an associate professor at the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics, Faculty of Medicine, at Chinese University of Hong Kong. His latest research focus is on the potential of creating anti-aging-based therapeutics for neurodegeneration by targeting GLP-1 receptor signalling. Ko won an Honourable Mention in the 2004 Hang Lung Mathematics Awards. He found it inspiring to be part of a team that contained maths talents, from whom he learnt a great deal. Ko always knew he wanted to go into medicine, but was encouraged to keep an interest in mathematics through the example of Dr David Ho, who used quantitative modelling methods to come up with his celebrated and elegant studies on HIV replication. “The field I’m in, neuroscience, is one of the more quantitative ones within biomedicine,” Ko added. He’s very excited about his current research and says that Croucher Innovation Award funding (2020) has been instrumental in giving him and his colleagues, as he describes it, “the flexibility and freedom to explore a lot of the ideas we had in mind.”

Owen Ko (Croucher Innovation Award 2020) speaking at the 2023 Hang Lung Mathematics Awards Winners Gathering

Ewina Pun, who is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in biomedical engineering at Brown University, is also a past Hang Lung Award winner. “When I was back in Hong Kong recently, I came across a video of my own presentation for the prize jury. There I saw—I think it was in the second slide— a picture of the functional connectivity across brain regions as an example of complex graphs, just like the complex neural networks I am dealing with now. I guess, without realising it, that interest in representing complex systems has stayed with me all this time.”As this is the 20th year of this biennial competition, we asked Susan Wong what plans there were to celebrate this notable landmark.

“One of the events we’ve already held was a panel discussion involving the presidents of HKUST and HKU,” she told us. “The topic was, ‘What is Good Research?’ What is the definition of good research? They looked at this from their point of view as scientists. But they also discussed what good research is from a university’s point of view, balancing the importance of fundamental research with practical applications.” We hope to have further panel discussions and events this year, as well as some gatherings with our alumni and all the teachers who have given their students—and us—so much support over the years.”

Professor Nancy Ip, President of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Professor Xiang Zhang President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (left) on the stage in a conversation moderated by Dr Gerald Chan, Co-Founder of the Morningside group.