Commuting Between Duke University and Duke Kunshan University

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Time flies – it has been nearly three years since [Prof. Haiyan Gao] started to juggle between the complicated and interesting "double" life of a Physics Professor at Duke University in the U.S., and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Duke Kunshan University in Kunshan, China. Friends, neighbors and colleagues asked me "How has it been?" all the time whenever I am back in the U.S. My answer has always been: "it is exciting, challenging, busy, exhausting, everything except boring."

Duke Kunshan is a Sino-American joint venture university formed by a strong partnership of Duke University, Wuhan University in Wuhan, China, and the municipal government of Kunshan City. Kunshan is a county level city in Jiangsu province with a population of about 1.7 millions, located on the high-speed train line between Shanghai and Beijing, about 40 miles from Shanghai, and 25 miles from Suzhou.

Perhaps best known in China for its rapid economic growth, and for being ranked 1st in GDP among county level cities in China in the last 12 years, Kunshan is rich in history, culture, arts and is a winner of the Habitat Scroll of Honour Award by UN-HABITAT in 2010. Water town Zhou Zhuang is among the most well preserved water townships in China and the famous Kun Opera, recognized as the mother of all Chinese operas, was originated in Kunshan area in early Ming Dynasty. It has been on the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO since 2001. Duke Kunshan began to lead a campaign to build a platform for studying and promoting this classical and beautiful art form. In Spring 2016, we had a Kun Opera course by Joseph Lam, from University of Michigan, and a prominent Kun Opera scholar. In his course, he combined the performance by Kun Opera artists with academic narratives. Based on this, we worked out a plan to bring a performance, 3 plays approximately 2.5 hours, to the campus. The idea was bold and the performance was a stunning success.

“Yougo,” the Peony Pavilion, performed by Suzhou Kun Opera Theatre at Academic Building, June 3, 2016. | Credit: Biyun Chen

Kunshan is the birthplace of literary giants Gui Youguang (Ming Dynasty), and Gu Yanwu (Ming/Qing Dynasty). However to my surprise, Kunshan has ties to a very important mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi, who served as the county magistrate of Lou (Kunshan) in A.D. 464. The name of Zu Chongzhi may be more familiar to natural science students: he held the most accurate approximation for π (355/113) for over nine hundred years, and had many other achievements in mathematics, astronomy, and engineering.

Zhouzhuang, surrounded by waters. 60% of the existing architectures dated back to the Ming and Qing Dynasty, with some built in the Song and Yuan Dynasty. | Credit: Haiyan Gao

Duke Kunshan University is a highly selective research-oriented, liberal arts and sciences university located in China, whose primary mission is to enable students from around the world to lead purposeful and productive lives. By delivering the highest quality undergraduate and graduate education that is truly interdisciplinary, we prepare students for professional, intellectual and societal leadership roles across the globe. Duke Kunshan was granted accreditation approval by China’s Ministry of Education in 2013, and we welcomed our inaugural class in August 2014.

Currently, we have four masters programs, and they are the Master of Global Health, Master of Medical Physics, Master of Management Studies, and Master of Environmental Policy. Besides graduate programs, the Global Learning Semester program (GLS), an innovative non-degree semester-long liberal arts program for undergraduate students is running smoothly and attracts students worldwide. Currently, we are in our fourth academic year, and have graduated 2 classes of Global Health and Medical Physics students, 3 classes of Management Studies students, and more than 360 Global Learning Semester students this past June. A number of Physics colleagues from our department have taught in the GLS program at Duke Kunshan and they are Tom Mehen, Jian-Guo Liu, Stephen Teitsworth, and Ronen Plesser. Other Physics colleagues have visited Duke Kunshan and they are Bob Behringer, Patrick Charbonneau, Josh Socolar, Berndt Mueller, and Warren Warren.

Duke Kunshan provides a historic opportunity for us to create a truly innovative and world-leading undergraduate degree curriculum for the 21st century, a liberal arts, interdisciplinary and integrated educational model to cultivate global thinkers and leaders with a profound root in his or her own culture. Running the GLS program as a testing field, and with immense effort by Duke Faculty who worked collaboratively in designing this innovative curriculum, we are now working very hard to launch this exciting degree program in the fall of 2018. This is a curriculum that will prepare students with interdisciplinary and disciplinary knowledge and skills to integrate, innovate and adapt to the rapidly changing world. Following the approval of eight cutting-edge and interdisciplinary majors by China’s Ministry of Education, one of which being the Material Science/Physics major, we submitted several new majors  this year and will develop more in the near future. Our goal is to offer students balanced and comprehensive choices in natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts.

Research has been important to Duke Kunshan University from day one, and it is distinctive of DKU to integrate teaching and research coherently and vertically. We have established the Global Health Research Center, Environmental Research Center, Data Science Research Center, Computational Image Research Center, Regional Ozone Sino-US Research Center, WHU-DUKE Research Institute, Institute of Applied Physical Sciences and Engineering. We are in the process of launching the U.S.-China Innovation Research and Training Center, Research Center for the Humanities and Center for the Study of Contemporary Global China.

The first research center at Duke Kunshan, the Global Health Research Center, aims to solve important health and health policy challenges in China and around the world, providing active contributions to policy debates and advocacy for better health in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. In 2016, we launched the Environment Research Center. The center aspires to provide solutions to environmental problems in China and other rapidly growing economies. Launched in November 2014, the WHU-DUKE Research Institute at Duke Kunshan University is established to further enhance and promote close and multi-facet collaborations between faculty and students at Duke University and Wuhan University in education and research. WHU-DUKE Research Institute also provides a research and collaboration platform for faculty and students from other universities and institutions across the world.

Duke Kunshan University has a beautiful campus, and also amazing conference facilities. Many Duke colleagues have organized different types of international meetings, workshops and forums. August 2015 the 7th workshop on Hadron Physics in China and Opportunities Worldwide, co-hosted by myself, Jian-Ping Chen from Jefferson Lab, and Xiandong Ji from University of Maryland and Shanghai Jiaotong University took place at DKU. This workshop was a great success and was reported on the front page of the China Science Daily. Prof. Berndt Muller and Xuefei Yan from Duke Physics also attended and gave presentations at this workshop.

Several years ago, I developed a seminar course on “Big Questions in Physics” with the goal of attracting more physics majors by introducing them to exciting, frontier physics questions that physicists in the 21st century are excited about finding  answers to. I taught and co-taught this course twice in the Global Learning Semester Program at Duke Kunshan University and my experience has been truly remarkable. Many students in our GLS program are Chinese university students majoring in social sciences, humanity and arts. In China, students started on science track (理科) or non-science track(文科) as early as high school. Teaching 21st century frontier physics questions such as the discovery of the Higgs particle, the mystery of dark matter, the proton charge radius puzzle was challenging, but the reward has been enormous. When one of the students in my class in spring 2015 told me that he never received a passing grade in high school physics during a meal together in school cafeteria – he was not joking. But the same student so inspired by the physics he learned in my class that he taught science to middle school students at an international school that summer in Kunshan. This is the kind of teaching experience we as teachers all want to have.

Although I was born in Shanghai, my childhood was complicated as I was spending time between Shanghai and Changchun every other year because my mother was working in Changchun and my father was in Shanghai - two cities separated by 36-hour train ride at the time. Finally in 1973 my mother was able to move to Kunshan, close enough to Shanghai and I started my first grade in Shanghai. Those days in China once someone moved away from Shanghai, it would be almost impossible to move back. After my sister was born, I moved from Shanghai to Kunshan to help my mother take care of my sister, so I completed my 2nd grade to 4th grade of elementary school education in Kunshan. Guess where Duke Kunshan is located? It is only 15 minutes walk from the site of my old elementary school in Kunshan, though the school is no longer there and new apartment buildings are replacing the rundown old buildings like many other places in China.

Haiyan at Duke Kunshan University Library, 2015. | Credit: Jay Shen

Contributed by Haiyan Gao and Yijun Gu