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Coming home to Kunshan

Young Qinglong Gu stared out of the window, as the long green train he was on snaked its way through fields on the edge of Kunshan. A few hours earlier he had been up a tree near home refusing to leave, as his father tried to coax him down to say goodbye to his grandparents before the two-day trip ahead. It was 1981, and for the five-year old boy, a major upheaval in his life, as his family moved across China to Sichuan Province.

August 2015, and Gu, now aged 38, found himself staring out of the window again, this time from a plane as he watched Singapore, his home for the past 20 years, fade into the distance below. Again, it had been a reluctant departure, as he said goodbye to his wife Amanda and children Amos and Alissa, before the journey back to his birthplace, where he would soon embark on a two-year master’s degree at Duke Kunshan University. For Gu, it was an emotional homecoming infused with memories of his childhood. But it would also prove to be a major influence on his future as the next two years provided a haven for study that would broaden his horizons at work and lead him to the brink of launching his own company.

Qinglong Gu with his grandmother in the Kunshan countryside in 1980

Gu was born in 1976, in a small village near Kunshan, before spending the second part of his childhood in Hanwang, Sichuan Province, and then moving to Singapore to study aged 18. He stayed in Singapore after graduation, taking a job as a radiographer at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, as well as getting married and becoming a father.

Despite the years that passed he retained happy memories of life in Kunshan. “It was a rural and somewhat idyllic life. I remember playing in the fields and the river there, and my grandfather raising a pig,” he says.

An old photograph taken on the Gu family’s trip from Kunshan to Sichuan in 1981

Nevertheless, he had not considered returning to live in the area until, while making plans to take a master’s degree, he discovered Duke Kunshan University.

“It seemed like an ideal opportunity,” he says. “I wanted to study medical physics and be closer to my parents. Kunshan offered both of these, as well as a chance to return to my hometown.”

Unsurprisingly, given the time that had passed, Kunshan was a changed place on Gu’s return, with considerable development and of course an international university campus. However, despite this, the area had not lost its charm and provided a perfect mixture of nature and modernity, according to Gu.

“There were many places I didn’t recognize. Things had changed a great deal, with new roads and buildings everywhere. But the countryside, where I grew up, was still easy to reach. And the city itself retained a lot of greenery that made it a beautiful and relaxing place to walk around,” he says.

The Duke Kunshan campus too, felt like a “miniature kingdom” he adds, where he could find time, removed from the outside world, to study, think and immerse himself in learning.

“There was plenty of space and you could study 24 hours,” he says. “I am a night person, so I liked to study late in the library study room. I would sleep at around 7pm, after dinner, then wake at 2am to review my work and study. Even at that time I could go to the library study room and study for hours. For me, it was a perfect environment, one where I could focus completely on my work. Living and studying at DKU was a unique experience.”

Qinglong Gu and his family, in Singapore

In his free time Gu would listen to music in his room, make a call home to his family or visit his parents, who now lived in Changzhou, a short train ride from Kunshan. On Duke Kunshan’s free Fridays, he would explore the city, admiring the changes that had been made over the years, or take part in the many of the university-organized activities, which included cultural shows and hiking trips.

In 2017, and after a semester abroad at DKU’s sister institution Duke University in the United States, Gu graduated and returned to Singapore, where he resumed work at the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. Now, armed with the knowledge he had learned over the previous two years, he brought new capabilities to his job, customizing medical imaging equipment to fit the hospital’s needs.

“This is crucial equipment, used for diagnosing and monitoring medical conditions,” says Gu. “Being able to alter it to fit the specific needs of the hospital was an important advancement in our technical abilities that’s had a significant impact on patient treatment.”

Qinglong Gu (left) with friends at Duke Kunshan University

Now Gu is ready to embark on a new chapter of his life, one heavily influenced by his time at Duke Kunshan, as he prepares to launch his own company designing personal medical imaging devices, next year. The devices will be handheld, simple enough to use at home, and capable of seeing the inside of people or objects. Named a perspicillum, Gu says they will enable patients to monitor ongoing health conditions without the need to go to hospital.

“It’s not something I could have done without the education I received at DKU,” he adds. “I had many happy childhood memories of Kunshan as an idyllic rural place where life was simple. Now I have many new ones, of a perfect little citadel for study, a place where I was able to find the time and space to progress my knowledge and ultimately my career.”

He is also pursuing a master’s degree in international translational medicine part-time at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, which is a joint venture between the National University of Singapore and Duke University, one of DKU’s founding universities.

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