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Adventure @ HKUST with Jan Vosecky

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend an entire year of your degree, 6000 miles away in a foreign land? To experience a completely new way of life, to enjoy the sights and sounds of a stunningly unique environment, meeting new people and discovering new ways in which to learn? Last year, fourth year MEng student Jan Vosecky did exactly that when he participated in a student exchange programme between the department of computer science and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

End of an Empire

Opened in 1991, HKUST is situated within a picturesque hill side campus running alongside the Hong Kong coast. Its leafy estate looks down over the striking ‘Clear Water Bay’ that is just 45 minutes drive from the globally recognised Hong Kong skyline. With its deep natural harbour and close proximity to major trading routes, Hong Kong was once a significant trading post and prosperous jewel in the crown of the former British Empire. Under the administration of the people’s republic of China since 1997, HKUST has continued to mature, and in less than 20 years has established an outstanding reputation for excellence, attracting faculty and students from leading institutions around the world including Oxford, Harvard and the MIT. The rapid rise and positive recognition of HKUST, especially in the field of Computer Science, draws significant parallels with the department of computer science (DCS) here at Warwick. Like HKUST, DCS is consistently recognised and rewarded for the quality of its research and teaching, in 2010 DCS once again exceeded expectations to be ranked 6th out of 133 institutions overall across the entire United Kingdom.

Student Collaboration

These two giants in the world of computer science research and teaching, recognise how important it is for concepts and theories to cross fertilise amongst undergraduates. In support of this, the department of computer science participates in an annual international student exchange programme, first established by HKUST in 1997 to promote the institute around the world. The fundamental goal of the scheme is to encourage students to experience academic life within a completely different environment. The core thinking is that if participants can appreciate and absorb different approaches to learning, socialising and researching, they will achieve far higher attainment over the course of their degree. DCS appreciates the way in which the scheme engenders student collaboration and is confident the exchange of ideas is helping to develop primary theories that will eventually lead to the next generation of research projects.

Jan Vosecky returns home

Quantifying the department’s confidence in the development of primary theories is fourth year student, and former exchange programme participant Jan Vosecky. During his time at HKUST, Jan undertook research concerned with the analysis and integration of social networks. So leading edge was the work that earlier this year Jan was invited to present a paper at the annual networked digital technologies conference in Ostrava. After success in the Czech Republic, Jan was then invited to submit a more detailed version of the paper to the leading international journal of web applications scheduled for publication in 2010. With Jan now back down to earth after his stratospheric third year in Hong Kong, DCS magazine invited him to talk about the exchange in the hope that more students will strive to follow in his footsteps and undertake what he describes as “a once in a lifetime experience”.

Let me begin if I may by asking you about how you got involved with HKUST. How did you find out about the scheme, was there much competition, what were the costs involved, what support was available and what did your parents think about it?

For me it all started in the second year when Dr Graham Martin gave a short introduction to the exchange programme during a core module lecture. Interested students were invited to a special presentation in which we were told in far more detail about the exciting adventures that lay ahead of us in Hong Kong. With only two places available on the exchange, we each had to submit both a CV and a short essay detailing the reasons why we wanted to spend a year at HKUST. In the end I was one of the fortunate two selected and I remember jumping for joy upon receiving the email. Aside from general administrative charges, the only real cost above that what you would ordinarily pay if you were studying at Warwick was the return flight. In fact the heavily subsidised accommodation in Hong Kong (just £125 a month for campus halls of residence) meant the cost of flights was negligible. Initially my parents were not overly thrilled at the prospect of me spending a year, thousands of miles away in Asia, but once they learned more about the exchange and how privileged I was to gain a place, they quickly got on board. In terms of support, I am indebted to DCS and HKUST who were excellent at quickly answering questions and resolving issues throughout the entire year (not that there were very many!).

Talk us through your first day on arriving in Hong Kong. How was the flight over, were you welcomed at the airport and how would you compare HKUST and Warwick Campus?

Well it was a long but pleasant twelve hour flight from London Heathrow to Hong Kong International with British Airways; unsurprisingly they served Chinese food on the plane! I booked the flight myself and timed it to ensure I arrived at one of the pre-designated slots where there would be somebody waiting. After a short while, students from around the world began descending on a coach that was ready and waiting to whisk us to our new home for the year. Driving at night, all we could make out were the tall buildings that lit up the famous Hong Kong Skyline and the cosmopolitan café’s that created a spectre of the West End of London.

Stepping outside the cool air conditioned coach, what strikes you first is the warm 32 degree air that floats up from the South China Sea.The campus is located just outside the hustle and bustle of the city on a hill side overlooking the clear water bay. Like Warwick, the campus is surrounded by countryside and similarly the minimal civilisation gives you a sense of living inside a bubble. The manner in which departments are located at HKUST is very different to that at Warwick; the former pushing towards greater integration in contrast to the latter’s approach of insulated buildings co-existing discretely from one other. As such there is no ‘Computer Science’ building as such; instead there is a series of fragmented rooms and laboratories associated with Computer Science each within a given academic building. I actually preferred this approach because it resulted in far greater multi-disciplinary integration, computer science students alongside English students, chemistry students next to physics students. In terms of computer science laboratories, the differences are minimal. Both undergraduates and postgraduates have their own rooms where there are banks of computers, all networked and available for seminars.
Tell us a little bit about the social aspect of the exchange. Where there any organised events that helped you discover the Chinese culture? How did you cope with the different language?

The social side is a significant part of the exchange and there are so many opportunities to really experience and appreciate the culture of Hong Kong. As well as meeting local students, we also met a number of fellow international students, mostly from the United States but also from Germany, France and Sweden. In terms of social events, the local students were amazing at organising trips both around the city and on campus where they acted as expert translators, but also events further a field including trips to neighbouring countries. On campus, English was the spoken language, and although Cantonese is the main language in Hong Kong, during my visit I choose to learn mandarin which is the language used in mainland china.

How did you spend your time between semesters? Were there opportunities to travel?

Absolutely! In fact it was actually really difficult to decide where to go in the end because there were so many amazing locations that were just a short plane ride away. In the end my friends and I settled on a three week trip which started in Thailand, progressed to Cambodia and concluded in Vietnam. As you can see from the slide show, the sights and sounds of these three countries were truly spectacular and I made for an absolutely awe-inspiring adventure. Determined to see as much as possible, I decided to stay for an additional two weeks after the exchange ended in order to spend time travelling around China and Malaysia, again I was enthralled by just how much there was to take in.

Your third year project has really impressed people at HKUST and of course back here at Warwick. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Like students back at DCS, participants on the exchange may also have to undertake a third year project, depending on their degree assignment. As I was one of them, I quickly sought out a potential supervisor upon arrival. In the end it was a little rushed but fortunately I stumbled upon a professor that directed me towards a project that was less practical and more research based. The core theory was concerned with social networks, analysing profile data in order to try and build a super social network. At the end of the project my HKUST supervisor was impressed with my progress and he suggested I write a paper to be presented at the networked digital technologies conference in the Czech Republic later that year. As an undergraduate I was immensely pleased and very proud of what I had achieved and grateful to the professor at HKUST for his expert guidance though out. What also came out of the conference in Ostrava which was unexpected but sincerely appreciated, was the direction to refine my paper with a referral for submission to the international journal of web applications.

How would you assess the importance of this exchange and what why should fellow students follow in your footsteps?

The HKUST exchange is a really amazing, eye opening experience. Over the academic year you learn so much about different approaches and viewpoints both academically and socially. The ability to travel was a truly breathtaking adventure which has really strengthened my CV. Cosmopolitan Hong Kong is an incredible place to explore both in the city and in the surrounding countryside. You can go cycling, surfing and hiking in the hills all around campus either on your own or with the other exchange students. To summarise I would say it is truly an adventure of a lifetime!

DCS Magazine spoke to Director of Undergraduate Studies and co-ordinator of the exchange programme Dr Graham Martin to ask him why he thought students should participate. "The undergraduate exchange programme with HKUST provides a unique opportunity for the sort of international study experience so favoured by potential employers and the chance to enjoy one of the most exciting cities on earth. Three places are available for 2010/11, and students may spend the period as an ‘intercalated year’ or as the third year of study of the MEng degree course. The exchange is a fantastic opportunity which should not be underestimated!"

Very special thanks go to Jan Vosecky for his invaluable assistance in producing this article. To express an interest in participating in the exchange please contact Dr Graham Martin