The Multidisciplinary Road to Excellence

Prof Tim Kwang Ting Cheng became Dean of Engineering in May 2016. Here, he sets out his vision for developing the School’s world-leading contributions

How will you seek to ensure and advance the School of Engineering’s standing?

I think the School and University have done an amazing job in the past 25 years to achieve what has been accomplished. I really admire that and it is one of the reasons I wanted to join HKUST. Now I feel the School needs to build out from the “ad hoc” dynamic mode of a start-up and seek long-term sustainability and stability. I see it as evolution rather than revolution as we are doing well. One of the key elements is to remove boundaries between departments and even Schools. I am a strong believer in the 1-HKUST spirit.

Why do you see a one-university mindset as important?

I learned the value of such an approach at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I previously worked. Santa Barbara is renowned for its multidisciplinary research. At HKUST, the School of Engineering is showing strong leadership and participation in institutes which draw together multiple departments and fields – big data, robotics, energy. We need to continue to advance this kind of culture as the nature of the problems we face as a society will demand solutions across disciplinary boundaries.

It may need determination and encouragement to first get involved in such research. However, I can confidently tell my faculty that I have done this, benefited from it, and enjoyed it, and I hope everybody can do the same. A well-designed infrastructure for executing multidisciplinary research will be one of the most important elements for a top-tier university in the next 10 years.

A well-designed infrastructure for executing multidisciplinary research will be one of the most important elements for a top-tier university in the next 10 years.

What are the main challenges facing the School?

HKUST is a small-sized, compact university compared with many other leading institutions globally. At the School of Engineering, we need to have our goals clearly defined and to work strategically to utilize our resources efficiently. In one word, our goal must be excellence. Anything we do or invest in has to be done with the confidence that in a few years we will become stronger or have become the best in that area. We need to exercise the discipline to cut some of the nice-to-have activities and invest in those we must have.

Even though I am an engineer and love numbers, this does not mean bean-counting but evaluation at a deeper level of analysis. Excellence can be seen, can be felt, but it cannot necessarily be quantified in numbers. For example, we want our students to succeed in society. While short-term goals such as starting salary are important, true success will be graduates who 10 or 20 years later have become world leaders in some way and the best in their profession.

How will you seek to build the faculty team?

Academics are the key to all institutional excellence in education and research. Thus, I place high priority on recruitment, retention and development. An outstanding faculty team will in turn inspire other top academics to join the School and can attract the best students. Developing and maintaining a highly intellectual environment is crucial for recruitment and retention of talents. Marketing the School, advocating the impact of faculty research and education results, and developing resources are all part of such development. Partnerships with other top-tier global institutions will also be important to broaden reach and  resources and fire up creativity.

How do you view the relationship between fundamental and applied research in today’s innovation-focused world?

A strong engineering school must maintain a portfolio of long-term fundamental research, preserve its core scientific strengths and support curiosity-driven projects. These are crucial elements and without them the pipeline for scientific discoveries and translating them into engineering capabilities will essentially be broken. Thus, engineering research cannot simply be driven by societal challenges and applications. The balance between applied and fundamental research must be maintained.

What are your goals in education?

The quality of an institution’s primary product – students – defines the institution. Our postgraduate recruitment is worldwide and, given the School and University’s global reputation for research, is doing really well. Undergraduates are mainly local, in line with HKUST’s mission to assist Hong Kong’s development, and we need to work harder with sister institutions and the government to alter the cultural climate in the city and move engineering, technology, and innovation from second and third choice to the frontline for young people and their families.

In addition, the School’s serious commitment to teaching innovation, such as e-learning, blended learning and hands-on education, must continue to help our students acquire the skills that will enable them to prosper over the long term. Given the accelerated pace of technology advances and shrinking lifecycle of an individual engineer’s knowledge, it is unlikely that graduates today will work for decades for a single company, or even in a single field. This means students must have the ability to learn independently and think about what to learn; a well-rounded view of engineering and life; and the passion to continue to evolve.

How will you build bonds with alumni and industry?

Developing strong links with industry in Hong Kong, Mainland China and globally, and engaging alumni are critically important for the School’s development. The most important avenue for gaining such support is to excite alumni and industry about the research agenda of our faculty, our students and the development of next-generation leaders, and the positive differences we are making to society.

Why is there such an emphasis on diversity these days?

I strongly believe that diversity is one of the most important elements in innovation and a key ingredient for excellence. When people come from different fields, training, backgrounds, and have different first languages, their brains are wired in different ways. If you put them together and they start communicating, new ideas are formed. Moreover, faced with the large-scale resources that stand behind institutions in Japan, Korea, and Mainland China, and their large job markets to absorb graduates, Hong Kong’s truly international, English-speaking, and culturally diverse society is one of its outstanding competitive advantages in attracting global talent.

Where do you get your own passion for engineering?

My father was a civil engineer, my two sons are engineers, so it runs in our family. From childhood, I have loved maths and physics and since elementary school becoming an engineer was never in doubt. My father was the chief engineer for the landmark Penghu Great Bridge in Taiwan. We were all proud of this but it meant he was away from home for eight years. That’s why I decided to choose a different field. Initially, I focused on electronic and computer engineering, working on semiconductors. I worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories for five years, before moving to the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I set up the System-on-Chip (SoC) Design and Test Lab. In the late 1990s, I established my second lab, the Learning-Based Multimedia Lab, focused on mobile computer vision, and served as the University’s Founding Director of the Computer Engineering Program. Right now, I am 50:50 involved with electronic and computer engineering and computer science and engineering.

What has kept you motivated over the years?

I love teaching, working with and learning from my students, and having the opportunity to be at the cutting edge of technology. Indeed, if life becomes too comfortable, I become uncomfortable. Having new multidisciplinary research projects, fresh courses to teach and different students to get to know keeps me constantly interested and happy in my career. Nine years ago, for example, I developed a smartphone course based on the Android platform. At the time, this operating system held 2% of the market. The last year I taught that course, Android’s market share was 80% and many of the undergraduates and graduate students who had taken the course had gone to become early Android developers.

In the past, engineering has not enjoyed the same stature as a career as medicine, law and finance in Hong Kong. Why is it important to change this?

As is common in Asian culture, I also came under pressure about my study and career choice. I was doing well in high school and the first question was always: ‘Are you going to do medicine?’ But I was bold enough to go with my heart. Now it is certainly time for more of today’s younger generation to do the same. It is obsolete to think of medicine or business as a better career than engineering: financially, stability-wise, or in terms of success. It is such an exciting, fast-moving field with immense impact on shaping society. Engineers build sensors to monitor areas as diverse as health and climate. They create scanning machines to enhance security. Every single day and for every age, from a baby to 99 years old, engineering is impacting people’s lives. It is essential for Hong Kong to have a strong footprint in engineering discovery, innovation and technology.

If life becomes too comfortable, I become uncomfortable. Having new multidisciplinary research projects, fresh courses to teach and different students to get to know keeps me constantly interested and happy in my career.

About Tim Cheng

BS in Electrical Engineering, National Taiwan University

PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, University of California, Berkeley

Dean of Engineering

Chair Professor of Electronic and Computer Engineering

Chair Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

Bell Laboratories, New Jersey, 1988-1993

University of California, Santa Barbara, 1993-2016

Founding Director, Computer Engineering Program, 1999-2002

Department Chair, Electrical and Computer Engineering, 2005-2008

Associate Vice-Chancellor for Research, 2014-2016 (also acting in 2013), overseeing US$200 million extramural funding

Main interests: Design automation of electronic, photonic, and flexible circuits and systems; hardware security; mobile computer vision; computer-aided medical image analysis

Director, US Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative Center for 3D Hybrid Circuits, 2011-2016

Published over 400 technical papers

Co-authored five books

Received over 10 Best Paper Awards from IEEE and ACM journals and conferences

Supervised 40+ PhD dissertations

University of California, Santa Barbara, College of Engineering Outstanding Teaching Faculty, 2004-2005

Technology Transfer
Holder of 12 US patents

Several inventions transferred and successfully integrated into commercial products

Co-founded two companies in design verification and multimedia content analysis

IEEE Fellow

Editor-in-Chief, IEEE Design & Test of Computers

Board Member, IEEE Council on Electronic
Design Automation Board of Governors

Board Member, IEEE Computer Society Publications Board

Proudest achievements
Teaching his students and seeing them succeed, and his family – his wife and two sons, both engineers