Friday, October 28, 2005

Computer Science in the NYT

but maybe not in the way we wanted.

Nearly a year ago, I had mentioned that Andy Yao had returned to China to teach there. Today, he leads off a NYT article on Chinese universities:
When Andrew Chi-chih Yao, a Princeton professor who is recognized as one of the United States' top computer scientists, was approached by Qinghua University in Beijing last year to lead an advanced computer studies program, he did not hesitate.

It did not matter that he would be leaving one of America's top universities for one little known outside China. Or that after his birth in Shanghai, he was raised in Taiwan and spent his entire academic career in the United States. He felt he could contribute to his fast-rising homeland.

"Patriotism does have something to do with it, because I just cannot imagine going anywhere else, even if the conditions were equal," said Dr. Yao, who is 58.

The rest of the article talks about the challenges of building up world-class universities in China. It did have this interesting line from Prof. Yao:
Dr. Yao said he had expected to concentrate on creating a world-class Ph.D. program but had found surprising weaknesses in undergraduate training and had decided to teach at that level. "You can't just say I'll only do the cutting-edge stuff," he said. "You've got to teach the basics really well first."
Sounds like something you could say about the U.S. system as well.


  1. Part of this feeds into the question of how researchers can develop talent in young potential collaborators. Usually, a researcher at a university comes into contact with undergraduates considering a career in research, first-year graduates, and n-th year graduates. If you want to work with people and grow your field, you need to attract some of these people to do new work.

    Part of what we do is select people from this pool (or an analogous pool of summer interns, people on mailing lists, earlier colleagues at conferences) and train them -- with luck, well enough to make it to the "next step" of doing research. Most of the time that comes in the form of research projects, but it sounds like Yao has realized that it can come in the form of undergraduate teaching as well. I wonder if he'll eventually end up reaching beyond that into secondary school curricula and beyond? 

    Posted by David Molnar

  2. True. I don't know though if Yao even expects that (namely, the fostering of young minds for the eventual goal of doing research). I think that going back to undergraduate teaching (and this is true in the US as well), is to create a foundation. You do expect the odd few students to go on to a career in research, but a better foundational training leads to a more qualified collection of graduates, and that in itself increases the level of competence at companies/start ups etc, which in turn helps foster the demand for more talent.

    Let's face it: the explosive growth in computer science wasn't fueld by a demand for more researchers, but a demand for more highly skilled computer scientists to work in universities, businesses, startups etc.  

    Posted by Suresh

  3. The NYT article states that Tsinghua is "little known outside China". Huh? [And I'm not even Chinese].

    ON the same note: which are the other prominent Chinese scientists who have come back? 

    Posted by Hung Q. Ngo

  4. I think that going back to undergraduate teaching is to create a foundation.

  5. I never thought of it like that, but it really is true...Thanks for sharing..!


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