Hon-Ming Lam: My Mentors, Part 2
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
English Translation of Professor Hon-Ming Lam’s article on 20 April 2012. First published by Professor Hon-Ming Lam in Traditional Chinese on Facebook, the story was subsequently republished as part of the book “Professor’s Notes — Teaching, Research, School” in 2016. Part 1 can be found here.
Author's note: A former student called me his “mentor” on Facebook; although I don’t deserve the recognition, I was indeed proud for quite a few days. The traditional Chinese education mission of teaching lifelong lessons, imparting knowledge and untangling questions has reduced to giving out knowledge, even a tool for awarding degrees. It’s hard for a student to cherish the care from their teachers growing up.
Settling down and recalling my growth, the different ways my “mentors” encouraged, motivated and supported me had a profound influence.
6. Ten-dollar meal (Editor’s note: equivalent to US$1.27)
A myriad of factors led me to transfer and finish my master’s degree under the tutelage of another CUHK teacher.
This teacher was eager to solve problems hands-on, such as making small experimental tools. One night he demonstrated his homemade column for column chromatography, coincidentally the narrow tube was blocked by a bubble and the liquid couldn’t pass through. I thought I could go back to my dorm, get some rest and redo tomorrow, but the teacher actually used his mouth to suck the solvent and unclog the tube! He chuckled and proclaimed that as long as the toxic samples weren’t added, it’s okay. I smiled and said that I’d work all night to analyze the toxic samples.
The teacher also cared about our living. Every week or two he would eat with his proteges, providing more food to what students usually eat. Undergraduates with no income were free of charge; I was a grad student with income, so it cost 10 dollars. The teacher said he wanted to ensure that we were well-nourished. Later I married while in the middle of studying for my Ph.D. degree, he even took the initiative to offer me an emergency loan.
Revelation from my “mentor”: Eating and marrying are both of utmost importance to students.
My thesis supervisor during my Ph.D. study in the US was a scientist who taught incredibly detailed-minded: for an experiment, every conclusion must come with two methods of proof. He would read newly published scientific articles regularly each week; at that time he would hang a piece of paper with a skull on it outside his office to deter anyone from visiting him. Once my wife came by our office and gave the skull-on-the-paper a tongue. My supervisor didn’t seem to have noticed that immediately, so the skull-with-a-tongue survived for weeks.
Attempting the oral examination to gain Ph.D. status required submitting a research proposal; after refining and polishing my draft, I happily brought it for my thesis supervisor to take a look. Unexpectedly, he threw my pièce de résistance into the trash can without reading it for two minutes. I was so taken aback that I nearly cried out. Now when I critique my research proposal back then, I also think that it is trash.
Revelation from my “mentor”: It’s unavoidable for students to turn in trash homework sometimes.
8. The Goddess of Wisdom
After graduating with my Ph.D. I set off to search for a job as a postdoc researcher. I applied for four positions and was invited to join all of them. The first three lab PIs(Principal Investigators) were distinguished Fellows of the United States National Academy of Science, but I chose the last and the youngest. This teacher was an energetic female scientist; she was the only one out of the four to take the initiative to ask about my wife’s situation and went everywhere to help my wife learn more about various academic pathways. This was the main reason I chose to join her lab at the end. Later when I returned to Hong Kong to work and had a daughter, the teacher would never forget to find an opportunity to give her a couple of childrenswear.
This teacher was a bright star at academic conferences; she had that Midas touch where data dismissed by everybody else would become groundbreaking discoveries after she described it, just like how a professional photographer would always showcase the beauty of his clients from a particular angle. In my heart, she was the wise Athena.
Researchers from the same lab couldn’t avoid having arguments for the order of authors in academic papers. Sometimes for the sake of harmony, I would accept unreasonable demands from my peers. Once my teacher discovered that she would always correct that. Now she seemed a bit like King Solomon.
Revelation from my “mentor”: Becoming a teacher requires different types of wisdom.
9. A relationship beyond years
After returning to Hong Kong for work, I collaborated with two Mainland Chinese agricultural experts to do research. They were older than me, well past seventy years old this year; they were mentors and friends where our relationship traversed our difference in age.
One of them came from a family of landlords; her father fled to Hong Kong during the Purging the Landlords political movement to avoid execution, later buried without a trace at an unknown corner of Hong Kong. Shouldering this class background, she never gave up on her dream. During the days of the Down to the Countryside Movement, she demonstrated her passion and ability through action, continuing agricultural scientific exploration in spite of the difficult times, moving the innocent peasants. As the extreme political movement came to an end, she took advantage of the opportunity to participate in overseas Asian rice research. She worked twice the time of everyone else just to compensate for all the lost time, even bravely using her self-taught English to make academic reports, winning the respect of her friends all around the world. To deliver on her promise to her friend, she gave up a job opportunity to stay overseas; instead, she brought her newfound knowledge to working units inside China.
Another was a soybean expert. The first time she worked in my lab, she was wary of Hong Kong’s capitalism because, in her understanding, it was a cannibalistic system. One time while working in Hong Kong she was sent to a public hospital due to a severe condition; by the time she got worried about not being able to pay for hospitalization, the medical crew had already provided timely care and treatment for her. Since then, she has always praised how humanistic Hong Kong’s capitalism was to her Mainland Chinese friends.
She always encouraged me by telling me that at her hardest times she couldn’t even muster the salary for the research group staff or pay submission fees for publishing academic papers; still, she made it through. The so-called “difficulties” that I faced wasn’t anything at all. She usually was reluctant to talk; once the conversation turned to soybeans, she would become very hyped. Just now she looked all out of sorts, the moment she went on the fields, it seemed as if she had turned younger by 40 years, doing careful investigation and detailed observation with relentless joy.
Revelation from my “mentors”: Never grumble in the face of difficulty again.