Imperial touches in modern China

Updated: 2015-03-20 07:40

By Cecily Liu(China Daily Europe)

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Imperial touches in modern China

University president brings personal side to global relationship

During Chinese New Year in February, Chinese students, staff and alumni from Imperial College received a warm and touching card from their university's president, Alice Gast, sending them her best wishes for the Year of the Sheep and reminding them that they have a home away from home at Imperial.

The heartfelt message attracted great attention from Imperial's overseas Chinese community, and the great care and emotion communicated through the message made them realize that Gast, the first woman to lead Imperial, has a unique leadership approach.

"I like the spirit of the message, to make our students away from home to feel welcomed in the Imperial family. I thought we have a big Chinese community and it would be appropriate for us to send a message to them," Gast says.

Perhaps this warm gesture is characteristic of Gast's inclusive leadership style, with a willingness to learn about and consult the opinions of others. "I have a fairly consultative and consensus oriented style. I try to engage the broader community so that everyone can contribute," she says.

Gast, a professor of chemical engineering and an internationally renowned scholar, assumed her role as president at Imperial in September. Previously she was president of Lehigh University in the US state of Pennsylvania, and she says it was a "great decision" to move to the United Kingdom as Imperial is a globally renowned university with "high standards, values and expectations".

In her inaugural address at Imperial, which set out her vision as a leader, Gast spoke about the importance of driving toward excellence, collaboration and impact on a global scale. For her, China is also a very important part of this vision.

The university has more than 2,000 Chinese students, who represent 14 percent of the university's total population, and in addition more than 5,000 Imperial alumni currently reside in China.

Furthermore, Imperial has several high profile Chinese research partnerships with Chinese companies, including Huawei and Aviation Industry Corporation of China, as well as scientific institutions such as Tsinghua, Zhejiang, Shanghai Jiao Tong, Wuhan and Hong Kong universities, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

But for Gast, the China connection also exists on a personal level as she has visited the country many times. She appreciates China's culture and traditions, and both of her children have studied Mandarin at school.

Gast says she learned a lot about China through her children, and one memorable experience is a family holiday in Shanghai in 2013, visiting her 20-year-old daughter who was studying there at the time.

During the trip, her husband took many black and white photographs of Shanghai, depicting its busy streets, shopping districts and the iconic cityscape of Pudong and The Bund, which she now hangs on her wall alongside photographs of London that her 18-year-old son has taken.

She says both of her children are fascinated by China and she is glad that they have had opportunities to learn more about it through their travels. Her son has just returned from his spring break in Xi'an, the home of the Terracotta Warriors.

Her daughter, who is now studying East Asian studies at university, is writing her thesis on minority Kazakhs and their immigration to China.

In 2012 Gast took her daughter to China as part of the Lehigh University delegation, to meet with Chinese university leaders in Beijing, Shanghai, Hefei and Nanjing, an event that has also influenced her daughter's interest in the country.

"She is fascinated by Chinatowns, and visits them all over the world to understand the culture mix, the customs in China, the food and language. Mandarin is definitively something she will use in work, diplomacy and business, I'm sure," she says.

Through her interaction with Chinese university leaders, Gast has realized that many Chinese universities have great investment in research and teaching infrastructure and the quality of both are very high.

"Many of their staff are educated in the UK or US, they are easy to talk to, and I feel they know more about our education system than we did about theirs, and they have adopted many Western educational structures," Gast says.

She says Chinese universities also have great estates and campuses, and large investments in research including equipment and laboratories, as well as student accommodations and recreation spaces. "And that's a way they were able to bring scientists and scholars educated abroad back to China."

The quality of Chinese research is reflected in the large amount of academic collaboration with Imperial, she says. Imperial collaborates with more Chinese research partners than any other UK university, having published more than 2,000 high impact papers with Chinese peers in less than a decade.

Gast has also personally come into contact with many inspiring Chinese academics, including Chen Jining, former president of Tsinghua University, who later became China's environment minister. Chen received his doctorate in environmental systems analysis from Imperial in 1993.

Recalling a meeting with Chen a few months ago while he was still at Tsinghua, Gast says they had great conversations about ways to enhance collaboration between the two universities.

"We talked about summer programs, postgraduate programs, research programs, and student exchanges. Such collaborations are best built from the ground up, but we talked about how to provide space for more visitors, jointly seek funding for projects, and build our capacity for greater collaboration," Gast says.

She says she regrets not being able to work with Chen in an academic setting anymore, but feels certain that Chen will achieve great things in his new government role. "He is a very nice person who is easy to get along with and easy to talk to. He is wise, and somebody who thinks before speaking."

Another Chinese leader Gast came into touch with is Ren Zhenfei, founder and president of the Chinese communications giant Huawei. The two met at Davos earlier this year, and Gast was impressed by Ren's vision and experiences.

"He is very wise, a broad thinker and his ideas go well beyond Huawei. He spoke about his views on the distant future and how technology really changes the world. His leadership has been essential to Huawei's success," Gast says.

Already, Imperial academics work with Chinese partners on research and its application in many fields, including nanotechnology, bioengineering, computing, data science, advanced materials, offshore energy, environmental engineering and entrepreneurship.

Imperial's famous Data Science Institute, led by Professor Guo Yike, hosts an innovation lab sponsored by Huawei, which brings together Imperial experts with Huawei researchers to develop new applications in fields including smart cities, energy and healthcare.

The Data Science Institute also hosts the Joint Lab for Applied Data Science with Zhejiang University, where researchers from both universities meet to exchange ideas on the future of data science and its application.

Meanwhile, Imperial's mechanical engineers and materials scientists have a 5 million pound ($7.5 million; 6.9 million euros) partnership with AVIC, led by Professor Lin Jianguo. This initiative focuses on two aspects, the first being the development of new material processing techniques to create safer, lighter and more efficient airplanes, and the second is to investigate new materials for use in aircraft manufacture.

Gast believes that academic research and development can have great application in industries in China, particularly as the country is growing rapidly and its companies are increasingly competing in the global space against international firms with leading technologies.

"The Chinese economy is becoming innovative, and it is closely connected to the higher education sector with lots of young researchers with bright ideas," she says, adding that Imperial's researchers are keen to participate in this space.

"We collaborate with industry, and really build the connection between the real world problems and the fundamental research we are doing," she says.

Beyond the academic work, Gast also believes it is important to build human relationships with colleagues and business partners, and to be aware and appreciative of other cultures especially in an age when collaboration is increasingly global.

One story that Guo remembers well is when he introduced the vice-president of Zhejiang University to Gast during the Chinese moon festival last year, Gast gave them each a moon cake.

"I recognized how important the moon festival is. When you're away, you miss being with your family, so I thought I'd give them both moon cakes," Gast says, looking back at the experience.

Gast says she drew the inspiration from her daughter, who once gave some Chinese students at Lehigh University cakes accompanied by written messages to help them celebrate the moon festival.

And as a leader, Gast has applied this approach to relationship building to all aspects of her work. "Humans benefit from building relationships where we understand one another. It helps us both to work better together and to get to know each other as people," she says.

(China Daily European Weekly 03/20/2015 page29)