Gifted physicist supports gifted students
Professor Ng Tai Kai is internationally recognised for his distinguished contribution to the understanding of theoretical condensed matter physics but his current role is considerably more practical.
Since 2014, Ng has been Executive Director of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education (HKAGE). Established in 2008, the academy is a prestigious non-government institution providing research-based information and support to gifted students aged 10-18, their teachers, and their parents, via a series of programmes. It is directed at the needs of gifted students who despite their academic prowess may be less adept at dealing with the social and interpersonal aspects of modern life. The programmes enable the students to realise their potential in academic and non-academic domains.
Diamonds in the rough
It is an area that first attracted Ng’s interest while he was professor of Physics and Associate Dean of Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in 2004. In an attempt to recruit high quality students, Ng together other professors at HKUST led a programme to identify and train gifted secondary school students to participate in the International Physics Olympiad.
The scheme was successful in identifying high calibre university entrants,but Ng observed some curious outcomes. In particular, one bronze medal winner who went on to successfully graduate from HKUST seemed to be struggling with integrating into the world of work some years later. Other students who had been accepted to study at top U.S. universities were actually falling behind.
“Now it is commonly known that very bright maths and physics students often suffer from difficulties associated with intrapersonal and interpersonal skills,” says Ng and he admits that it was something he too had experienced as a talented young student.
“It was a tougher world then and the survival instincts were more strongly developed,” he says, having started a highly successful programme at HKUST that led to the establishment of the Centre for the Development of the Gifted and Talented (CDGT) designed specifically to help these struggling students.
Ng developed weekend programmes for secondary school students where peer groups could be formed that would continue into university, preventing social isolation and assisting with whole person development.
“I attracted the students by introducing very demanding and competitive academic programmes but in reality, that was just the bait,” he says and in many cases parents of the students reported that the courses were a life changing experience for their families.
In 2014 he was approached to run HKAGE on a full-time basis and despite it being a radical change from investigating and researching condensed matter physics to managing a government initiated NGO for gifted students, he did not hesitate to accept.
“I wanted to take my experience at HKUST and apply it to a bigger audience,” he says and now there are 9,000 students enrolled at HKAGE with about 3,000 regularly engaged in weekend programmes. Ng has recently agreed to a long term funding model for the academy which is waiting for final LegCo approval.
Ng still takes an active interest in theoretical physics and undertakes private research into high temperature super conductors which, although discovered in 1987, still present numerous unexplained properties which continue to intrigue him. In collaboration with Dr. C.M. Varma at Bell Labs, Lucent Technology, Ng predicted the existence of a Spontaneous Vortex State in the magnetic superconductor ErNi2B2C in 1997. This new state of matter was verified in a 2001 neutron scattering experiment.
In collaboration with Prof. P.A. Lee at M.I.T., he predicted the existence and experimental manifestations of the Kondo effect in Quantum Dots (artificial atoms) in 1988. This prediction was verified in 1998 and has become an area of active research in recent years. In 2002, a Croucher Research fellowship enabled him to carry out further work this area.
Of all his many notable achievements in theoretical physics research, Ng admits he is probably most proud of his 1994 paper, “Edge states in anti-ferromagnetic quantum spin chains.”
In the 1990s, very few scientists were working on combining pure theoretical physics with topology and it aroused relatively little interest. However, more recently it is regularly cited as an important contribution to the field which has subsequently become a “hot area” in physics.
Ironically, physics was not his first choice of university course as an under-graduate. His original preference was to enrol in the engineering course at HKU and he only opted for physics after an initial rejection by the engineering school.
His international reputation remains firmly intact and he is content to be focused full time on the HKAGE challenge.
“Despite my achievement in research, now I derive more professional satisfaction working with the gifted student programmes” he says.
Professor Ng attended the Cheung Chuk Shan College in North Point where he was inspired by the science teachers and was accepted to read physics at HKU where he received his BSc in 1981. He completed his PhD degree at Northwestern University in 1987 and joined the Physics Department of HKUST in 1991. He received an Honourable Mention in the 1993 Achievement in Asia Award of the Overseas Chinese Physics Association and was appointed Associate Dean of Science at HKUST in 2004. In 2010 he introduced the CDGT programmes at HKUST for gifted students under the School of Science. Professor Ng is distinguished for his contribution to theoretical condensed matter physics, in particular his prediction of Kondo effect in Quantum Dots, and his study of Topological Excitations in Low Dimensional Quantum Antiferromagnets. He was a member of the Hong Kong Curriculum Development Council on Science Education and is currently a Council Member of the Education University of Hong Kong. He was appointed Executive Director of the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education in 2014 and continues to undertake private research.
To view Prof Ng’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.