Born in Wuhan, China, Duke Kunshan University Professor Kai Huang was drawn to science throughout his youth by a natural curiosity. It was a personality trait that helped him excel through education and enter the world of academia.
Now an associate professor of physics at DKU, Huang is immersed in the university’s interdisciplinary ethos and works with colleagues and students across a wide range of research that has had real world impacts.
“I was never content just to know how things happened; I always wanted a deeper explanation and understanding,” he says. “I was the type of person who liked to ask ‘why’ questions.”
Huang was a high achiever throughout his school years and received a scholarship to attend Nanjing University, where he studied electrical engineering to master’s degree level, before transitioning to physical acoustics/physics for his Ph.D., after taking some acoustics classes and developing an interest in the subject. After Nanjing University, he moved to Germany where he studied for his Habilitation in physics, a formal qualification needed to become a university professor at Bayreuth University.
The combination of subjects gave him a broad scientific education that prepared him well for joining Duke Kunshan in 2019, where collaboration across disciplines is encouraged as part of the university’s interdisciplinary ethos.
“I appreciate the opportunity of working in a very international and interdisciplinary working environment with great colleagues,” says Huang. “I believe the supportive community we are building together is one of the keys to the success of DKU.”
Since joining Duke Kunshan, Huang has been involved in a wide variety of research, much of it in collaboration with colleagues and students. One of his main areas of interest is in understanding, predicting and controlling the collective behavior of particulate materials (such as sand) through laboratory experiments and computer simulations, in order to shed light on widespread applications in space exploration, process and civil engineering, and other fields.
He has collaborated in this area on a range of projects that have included developing ways to ‘see’ through sand, investigating how roots penetrate soil using X-ray tomography, and building a microfluidic device to understand interactions between algae and bacteria species collected from nearby Lake Tai, in order to find solutions to toxic algae blooms.
Huang has also pursued an interest in the acoustic design of traditional European and Chinese opera theaters, working with colleagues on how to characterize room acoustics with readily available tools such as a smartphone. In addition, he developed a mini-term course, in collaboration with performing artists, to train interested students in helping to design the DKU theater on Phase 2 of the campus, which opened earlier this year.
Huang’s research has on many occasions reached beyond the boundaries of the Duke Kunshan campus to have a real-world impact.
“We were the first group in the world to use radar technology to track small, subcentimeter-sized particles, and we are still developing this technology for broader applications,” he says. “We helped better understand how to collect soil samples in extra-terrestrial environments from a fundamental perspective, which was highlighted by Cambridge University Press in their social media coverage. And we helped to develop, with DKU students, inertial measurement unit sensing techniques to get the trajectory of ‘smart’ tracers moving inside granular media.”
Just as in his youth, Huang has excelled in his career at DKU and in 2020 was made chair of the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, a position that saw him become more involved in building the university’s academic offerings. Through it he oversaw growth in the department from fewer than 20 faculty members to more than 60 today, as well as an expansion in the list of courses offered. Lab infrastructure has also increased in size under his leadership, reaching more than 5,000 square meters with the opening earlier this year of the Duke-Wuhan Building on Phase 2 of the university campus.
Many of the courses offered by the Department of Natural and Applied Sciences and across the university are unique, according to Huang. These include his own mini-term course that teaches students basic room acoustics knowledge; another on particulate materials that introduces the “fascinating world” of sand, pattern formation, mixing and segregation; and a new course he is developing with Dean Marcia France to train students how to approach problems from a scientific perspective and communicate research effectively.
Alongside unique courses, the university is also constantly making innovations in the way it delivers education, which shines through in student results, according to Huang.
“DKU is a platform for teaching innovation by design. For instance, all majors offered here are to some extent interdisciplinary,” he says. “Starting from common core, divisional foundation to interdisciplinary study courses, we try to provide students with a broader perspective so that they can have a more transparent view of challenges facing the globe.
“On the other hand, we use disciplinary courses plus intensive signature work and undergraduate research projects to train students how to dive into a specific area of research, paving the way for them to make a difference in the future. The dedicated balance between breadth and width is carefully adjusted at all levels and supported by faculty advisors, signature work mentors, instructors, and our dedicated staff members,” he adds.
Looking ahead, Huang believes Duke Kunshan will continue to highlight the importance of global citizenship as well as adding to the local economy of Kunshan through its support for education and technology development. Students and faculty are actively engaged in joint research projects with local industries, he says, and the university is in discussions with local hospitals over the launch of joint labs to help the development of healthcare systems in the Yangtze Delta area.
Duke Kunshan’s collaborative approach to teaching and research, which is so close to Huang’s own scientific education, will also be a crucial factor in the university’s success, he says.
“I think Duke Kunshan will continue to make its mark in higher education innovation globally and in developing its own interdisciplinary research pillars,” he adds.