As a research-oriented liberal arts and sciences institution, Duke Kunshan University is a fast-growing hub of innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving. In the first of a series showcasing student-led research, we provide an overview of the immersive culture of scholarly exploration at DKU.
Every day of the year Duke Kunshan University faculty and students set their minds to finding solutions to global problems, deepening our understanding of the world around us and expanding the well of human knowledge and capability.
Through its world-class faculty, state-of-the-art facilities and international connections, Duke Kunshan strives to generate creative, reasoned and actionable responses to complex issues and challenges.
DKU research has promoted international collaboration for future pandemics, unearthed new discoveries from human history, supported species protection and helped to mitigate against technological failure.
Central to Duke Kunshan’s liberal arts and sciences model is an emphasis on encouraging students from their first year of undergraduate study onward to engage in groundbreaking areas of research and undertake their own projects with the close support and supervision of faculty.
As a research-oriented, Sino-U.S. joint-venture university located in China, Duke Kunshan’s primary mission is to prepare students for professional, intellectual and societal leadership roles across the globe.
“Research is a great way to enrich learning, to push students beyond what they can get out of sitting in a classroom,” said Dean of Undergraduate Studies Dr. Marcia France.
“It’s learning by doing. When conducting your own research, you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, so it requires students to think on their feet. It fosters important skills such as creativity and critical thinking, as well as perseverance.”
DKU faculty involve students in their pursuit of knowledge in service to society through innovative scholarship and research programs.
Routes for undergraduates to engage in research activities include: Signature Work (SW), a compulsory component of the four-year bachelor’s degree requiring students to investigate an original topic of their choosing; Summer Research Scholars (SRS), a program supporting student participation in collaborative research supervised by Duke Kunshan faculty; and the Student Experiential Learning Fellowship (SELF), which supports undergraduates doing off-campus research projects, internships and other experiential learning activities.
Students can also pursue Research Independent Study (RINDSTU) for course credits during the semester in a field of special interest.
Opportunities regularly arise through DKU’s research centers, programs, laboratories and networks, and students are encouraged to discuss their interests directly with faculty whose research areas align with theirs. Duke Kunshan students have a strong track record of published research including as first-authors.
Most of the master’s programs require candidates to present a thesis showcasing their critical thinking and problem-solving skills as well as their intellectual courage and creativity.
Students on the global health graduate program, for example, are routinely involved in interdisciplinary and innovative research projects which aim to tackle global challenges in pursuit of health equity worldwide.
“Students at DKU are so lucky when it comes to research,” said Yucong Zhang, who earned his master’s in electrical and computer engineering at Duke Kunshan this year and is now a full-time research fellow in Dr. Ming Li’s DKU laboratory.
“The professors are at the top of the pyramid, the facilities are new and cutting-edge and DKU’s small population means there are lots of opportunities for getting hands-on experience.”
In a recently published paper on automatic speech recognition, Zhang focused on developing a system for distinguishing between different speakers and pinpointing the timing of their contributions in audio clips, even with recording still in progress.
Bihui Huang, from the freshly graduated Class of 2022, researched topics as diverse as Afro-Asian relations, Shanghai’s jazz history, Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Kunshan delicacy of Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crabs during her four years of undergraduate study.
She said there are many research opportunities for undergraduates from the very start of their DKU careers.
“Research labs on campus are always recruiting students as research assistants, students can design their own independent projects that allow them to work closely with their preferred mentor and Signature Work also requires students to be deeply involved in their topic,” Huang said.
Undergraduate Mateja Bokan only started at DKU this fall but he is already eyeing “unexpected” research opportunities.
“I am eager to get involved in research regarding the impact of culture and psychology on voting patterns in various countries of the world, as well as how soft politics and soft power may be used to change these patterns over time,” said the Class of 2026 student, who has previously focused his energy on chemistry.
Bokan, from Serbia, said that only since joining DKU has he realized the “potential for personal growth” through research, adding he is looking forward to being exposed to topics and ideas not previously on his radar.
“Students can start doing academic research at any time,” said France, who is also associate vice chancellor for undergraduate studies and the Language and Culture Center.
“During the academic year any student can embark on research for course credit. It’s just a matter of connecting with a faculty member who shares mutual research interests and has the time to take on a research student. Our research centers also sponsor student projects.”
DKU’s research centers serve as hubs of academic collaboration, bringing together experts and innovators from different fields, as well as students.
The centers — the Institute of Applied Physical Sciences and Engineering, Global Health Research Center, Environmental Research Center, Center for the Study of Contemporary China, Data Science Research Center, Humanities Research Center and Zu Chongzhi Center for Mathematics and Computational Sciences — provide space and resources for projects that extend beyond the boundaries of traditional academic departments.
The ultimate aim is to foster a spirit of interdisciplinary inquiry to advance practices across business, health, academia and other fields for the benefit of wider society.
Dr. Xin Li oversees research activities at DKU and is director of the Data Science Research Center.
“Most research projects are not easily confined within a single discipline,” said the associate vice chancellor for graduate studies and research when asked why the centers are so integral to DKU.
“We have divisions of arts and humanities, natural and applied sciences and social sciences, for example, but very often there will be cross-over between them in a project.
“These centers foster that interdisciplinary spirit that is so important at DKU by pulling in faculty members from various programs and divisions and pooling a range of expertise and perspectives.”
He added that research centers must roll with the times and be prepared to adapt to societal and technological changes.
“About 100 years ago there was no data science or artificial intelligence,” Li said.
“Maybe in another 100 years data science is no longer so relevant and there is another emerging area.
“Research centers must therefore be dynamic; they should be prepared to evolve to retain their cutting-edge status.”
Students should also strive to be at the forefront of these trends, he added.
“A student of computer science would probably find that a programming language he or she learned as a first-year undergraduate was redundant by the time they had completed a master’s degree six years later,” Li noted.
He said the centers provide a key avenue for students to take part in interdisciplinary projects at DKU.
“Knowledge is an important element of classroom teaching but through research students acquire the skills to learn by themselves and develop new knowledge,” Li added.
Duke Kunshan was founded in 2013 through a partnership of Duke University, Wuhan University and the city of Kunshan.
Its inaugural undergraduate class graduated this year with dual degrees from Duke and DKU. Class of 2022 members are now embarking on high-level study, research and related activities at top universities and for employers.
In another landmark, delivery in the coming months of the Phase 2 expansion will more than triple the campus footprint to provide extra research space.
The WHU-DUKE Research Institute at DKU, for example, offers a research and collaboration platform for faculty and students from Wuhan, Duke and Duke Kunshan universities and other research institutions across the world.
The expansion will build upon DKU’s growing reputation as a major contributor to solutions-focused thinking for the global age and a developer of the next generation of leaders across society.
“There’s a difference between being a consumer of knowledge and a creator of knowledge,” said France, on why DKU places such an emphasis on student research.
“We want to be training our students to ultimately be the creators of knowledge.
“We want our students to think globally. Global problems need global solutions and we have students from all over the world who are bringing different backgrounds and perspectives.
“If you are just asking people to memorize facts and spit them back out, they won’t learn how to think critically, how to be creative and how work together to solve the big problems.
“We want to send out graduates who are capable of being the leaders who are going to make significant contributions to the world around them.”