Professor Joseph Sung: doctor, academic, educator

4 April 2014

From early beginnings as a medical student in the University of Hong Kong to being declared as an “Asian Hero” by TIME magazine after the SARS epidemic, to being newly delegated as the Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2010, Professor Joseph Sung has experienced some very unexpected transitions in his life.

One of which was his decision to pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences at the University of Calgary in Canada that drove him to apply for the Croucher Scholarship in 1989. This began Sung’s career as a gastroenterology scientist, and his relationship with the Croucher Foundation, which he still speaks fondly of today.

“At that time, I was working in [Prince of Wales Hospital which is] a teaching hospital, so I came into contact with a lot of university professors and became interested in research,” Sung says.

He was keen to work with Professor Bill Costerton at the University of Calgary, whom he says is the world’s first scientist to successfully described bacteria that can form a layer on the surface of biofilm. This was similar to the research Sung was carrying out in Prince of Wales Hospital on bacteria that caused gallstone formation in patients.

In order to proceed with this opportunity with Costerton, Sung had to obtain funding for further studies.

“The Croucher Foundation was my obvious choice,” he says. According to him, the two most popular funding agencies for overseas training at that time were: the Commonwealth Scholarships, which as the name suggests, only allowed one to study in universities in the Commonwealth countries; and the Croucher Foundation, which does not have any restrictions on which country that one can apply for.

“The Croucher Scholarship helped me a lot over the three years of my overseas studies. As I had to give up my job as a doctor in Hong Kong, my income for those years, especially for the first year and a half, was almost entirely from the Croucher Scholarship,” he reflects.

After returning from Canada in 1992, Sung continued his academic career as a lecturer in CUHK. His life-changing experience as the department head in Prince of Wales Hospital during the SARS epidemic that struck Hong Kong in 2003, which required him to “organize and take charge of the management of the crisis”, made him realise that he wished to further his education again.

“After [the crisis] I fully recognized that Hong Kong is not so well prepared in public health and infectious disease training. Although I am a gastroenterologist, I had become very interested in infectious disease control after SARS,” he explains.

This led him to apply for the Croucher Senior Research Fellowship, which allowed him to take six months of leave to conduct research in Hong Kong or overseas.

“I decided to take this opportunity to go to one of the best school of public health in the US and that is the John Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health. I spent 3 months there both as a student as well as a teacher because I was asked to share the experience of SARS management in Hong Kong as part of the Master of Public Health teaching”, he says.

“On the other hand, I learned about other aspects of public health from them, and more about infectious disease control. It was a very useful period for me that allowed me to bring back a lot of knowledge and experience in infectious disease and establish the Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases at CUHK when I returned in 2004.”

The Stanley Ho Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases is the first of its kind in Hong Kong. Sung serves as its Founding Director and Advisor.

Today, he juggles his medical work at Prince of Wales Hospital with his responsibilities as the Vice Chancellor at CUHK. Popular among students for his relaxed and easygoing demeanor, he tries to maintain close relations with his student body at all times, a habit he says he picked up from being the head of Shaw College.

According to him, all his previous experience has culminated into useful pieces of wisdom that he applies to his current post:

“I was not trained in administration, but my skills in academic research and my skills in working with the students, have helped me to take up this position. The Vice Chancellor does not only handle administration, he also guides the university in research. Working with students is a big part of my job,” he says.

While he may not have imagined becoming an academic, let alone an educator, when he first began his medical career, Sung says he thoroughly relishes his work at CUHK.

Where may I be in the future? I’m not sure, but I am enjoying my time now.
Joseph Sung

To view Joseph Sung’s personal Croucher profile, please click here