Youthful scientific experience – From Innovator to Creator
Wanning LIAO | 06/04/2020

Undergraduate research is at the core of SUSTech. It represents the opportunity for every student to innovate in scientific research, to make a difference for the world. Scientific inquiry is a fundamental part of all our undergraduate programs, with research outcomes presenting the capstone experience of all degrees. Interdisciplinary research can change the world, clarifying career directions, and develop skills that can be applied to numerous fields. We spoke to several students to see how we had helped them achieve their dreams.

As a research university focusing on science, engineering, and medicine, Southern University of Science and Technology still pays attention to its other disciplines in fields such as business, humanities, and social sciences. These other fields ensure that our students receive a holistic education, generating future leaders that have a comprehensive set of skills as they step off campus to contribute to society.

While the vast majority of our graduates continue on their paths in science or engineering, now and then, one of our students finds themselves taking the path far less trodden. This year, one such student is Wanning LIAO (’20, Chemistry). While she is graduating from Shuli College with a BSc in Chemistry, she has found a new passion in architecture.

Wanning LIAO has an enormous smile and hails from Ningbo in Zhejiang Province. Before heading to university, she had wanted to study architecture, and chemistry was a new direction that she took when arriving at SUSTech. When she first came to SUSTech, she had intended to head into pharmaceutical research with the broader goal of studying rare diseases. She wanted to learn more about these rare and unusual diseases to support the healthcare needs of society.

During her freshman year, Wanning LIAO studied under Associate Professor Xiaojiang XIE and Doctor Xuefeng TAN. They brought her into analytical and organic chemistry while teaching experimental skills. However, during her first year at SUSTech, she found that she was not a person for the chemistry laboratory.

During her sophomore year at SUSTech, Wanning LIAO found the spark of inspiration that reflected on her desire to help others. An article about renowned Chinese interior designer Pingzhong WANG from Ping Design Studio in Shanghai spoke of his desire to help a family of five who lived in a tiny, three-story, 32 m2 house. One of the family members was disabled and had to live on the ground floor, with his parents sleeping on the same floor.

The ability of an architect and interior designer to significantly improve people’s lives beyond science and medicine had a significant impact on Wanning’s direction. Much like her desire to help people through pharmaceutical research, she had found a new creative path.

From here, she sought new advice and new mentors. Dr. Yan LIU  from the Society of Fellows of the Liberal  Arts took her under his wing as his student research assistant for a year and a half. She also took many architectural electives. Dr. Yan LIU has a significant interest in Woven-Arch Bridges in the Min-Zhe area of China that sits on the border of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. He has also published a paper recently on the Moon Bridge in the Huntington Library in California.

Dr. Yan LIU set many research projects for Wanning LIAO, explaining how human occupation, inhabitation, and activities are fundamentally intertwined with different architectural styles. By working alongside Dr. Yan LIU, she got a better understanding of how the activities of local populations influence broader issues affecting geographical regions by investigating the occasional pieces of graffiti scrawled on the beams of the wooden bridges. They told stories, chronicling local events. The opportunity to engage local families who had been involved in the bridge woodworking craft for generations opened her eyes to the anthropological aspect of architecture.

Wanning LIAO got a more in-depth insight into the use of natural materials from local artisans when Dr. Yan LIU recommended she partake in the scale model recreation of the Qing  Yangzhou Bridge. In 2019, she worked for four weeks with artisans and other researchers to painstakingly construct a 1:30 model of the Timber Woven-Arch Bridge, manipulating bamboo and timber by hand.  The opportunity to collaborate with crafters who were intimately acquainted with this style of bridge construction proved to Wanning LIAO that they are a distinct group from architects, using a separate set of skills.

Her chemistry skills have certainly helped in her architecture studies. Wanning LIAO’s skills with x-ray diffractometers and Raman spectroscopy helped her recognize the Shang Dynasty patterns in the Panlongcheng Turquoise Animal Face project from 2018.

Further to that, during one of her summer exchange opportunities, her early pharmaceutical research reminded her to incorporate green chemistry when she was considering the sustainability of an eco-friendly design scheme.

Her time at the Bartlett Summer School at University College London (UCL) saw her instructor encourage her to let loose with her non-conventional background, as she was freed of traditional constraints.

Wanning LIAO relished the opportunity to lean into her creative mind that designed a fantastical world incorporating animals with the future. Her work, entitled “Flamingo Fantasy,” was recognized as one of the best student projects and received the Bartlett Summer Prize.

In terms of her future, Wanning LIAO is due to head to the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley) to join their College of Environmental Design (CED). With her multi-disciplinary background, her newly acquired skills should allow her to convey intimate and critical insights about daily life. They will be converted into observations fit for spatial and architectural design. Ultimately, she would like to become a spatial designer who can care and cater to all aspects of life, whether it be natural, humanistic, or cultural. Such a triumvirate should be harmonized cohesively to provide living and working spaces that bring equal joy to all that spend time within them.

Despite her experience at SUSTech in architecture, Wanning LIAO will be entering UC Berkeley with a fresh mind. There will be a lot to learn at UC Berkeley. Still, she will treasure the moments she spent at SUSTech. It gave her the solid foundation she needed that has seen her land at one of the most prestigious architecture schools in the world.

Message for those wishing to take on undergraduate research:

Try everything you want to try, and do not hesitate to experience new things, even if you have never done it before.

Your interests will educate and inspire you the most. Do whatever you want to do, be brave, and connect with professors. Taking part in labs, seminars, and research groups is not as difficult as you think.

2020, 06-04
By Wanning LIAO

From the Series

Undergraduate Research

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Translated and Adapted By SUSTech Newshub

Proofread ByChris Edwards, Yingying XIA

Photo BySupplied, Yan QIU


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