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【2015 Newly Elected Academician】Xie Xincheng: Independence is the Key Quality

FEB . 03 2016
Peking University, Feb 3, 2016: For Professor Xie Xincheng, 2015 marks the sixth year since he joined Peking University in 2009, “not very long nor short”, and also a fruitful year when he is elected a new member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences with five other colleagues elected of CAS and one of CAE (Chinese Academy of Engineering). For Xie, teaching, research and administration are all his responsibilities of being Dean of the School of Physics, but he also pays particular attention to his students and inquires in detail about them when talking with his assistants.


Mastering the ability of independent thinking

In Xie’s opinion, one of the most fundamental qualities for students is to think independently. This view derives from his early-day experiences during the Cultural Revolution and later at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). While training at a sports school during the Cultural Revolution, Xie kept learning basic mathematics and physics by himself due to the influence of his parents. He had no professional resources to turn to except for himself to find out the solutions to any mathematical and physical problems he encountered during the learning process.

In February, 1978, after taking part in the first National College Entrance Examination following the end of the Cultural Revolution, Xie came to Hefei, Anhui from his hometown Nanjing in Jiangsu and started his university education at USTC. Though Xie applied to major in mathematics at first, he was enrolled to study physics. Nevertheless, Xie was content with this, for he thinks that various scientific disciplines are greatly related to each other. Physics is built on mathematics and intertwined with other subjects, intriguing him to explore the world of physics.

The most cherished experience during Xie’s study at USTC is the after-class discussion among classmates. During break time, the most popular topics among his friends centered on problems that their professors did not probe into in class. “The more the teachers talk about a certain problem, the less students will think of it on their own. As a result, only when the teachers talk less in class will students have the motivation to think more individually.” The strong consciousness of independent thinking among his classmates lays great influence upon Xie.

Focusing on the solutions instead of the problems

In 1979, Li Zhengdao (Tsung-Dao Lee), the Chinese-American physicist, visited USTC. During this trip, he recommended five students at USTC to continue their studies at  Columbia University. Li’s trip initiated the China-U.S. Physics Examination and Application, also known as CUSPEA, aimed at facilitating the admission of Chinese graduate students into some American and Canadian universities. It is from CUSPEA that Xie got his opportunity to continue his graduate study at the University of Maryland after graduating from USTC in 1982.

When arriving in America for the first time, Xie had no place to stay. He lived temporarily at the Chinese Embassy while looking for a place to move into. When recalling this experience, Xie does not give much thought about the difficulties upon his first arrival in America. Xie says, if he targets the problem and focuses on finding a solution to it, the problem will not be much of a problem.


His reflection on seeking the solution instead of worrying about the problem also works well when he decided to change his instructor at the University of Maryland. When working with his first instructor, Xie thought over about his interest of research and reached the conclusion that his field of interest did not fit well with his instructor’s. Again, the solution was easy. Xie found another professor whose research interests matched best with his and determined the research area that he was most interested in.

Pursuing a challenging life

After graduating from the University of Maryland, Xie joined the faculty of the Oklahoma State University and was promoted to be a professor, gradually setting up his own family and career and leading a stable life.

Starting from the 1990s, Xie’s bond with Chinese Physics institutions has been much tightened for his friendship with Wang Enge who, in 2009, became Dean of the School of Physics at Peking University. Xie says, “He (Wang) is a very close friend of mine.” In 2000, Wang invited ten North American and ten domestic professors to set up the International Center for Quantum Structure at CAS, Xie being one of them. He began to stay in China for two to three months each year. In 2005, Wang invited Xie to join the Key Laboratory of Condensed Matter Theory and Computation at CAS. From then on for half of the year Xie would stay in China for scientific research. When Wang was appointed Dean of the School of Physics in 2009, Xie was offered by him a full time job at Peking University for the establishment of the International Center for Quantum Materials.

At that time, overseas scholars including Xie were offered great opportunities promised by the Chinese government, which was starting to highlight the significance of attracting talents back to China. The Recruitment Program of Global Experts was one of the most closely watched programs. Also, despite living in America for several decades, Xie had relatives and friends in China. More importantly, Xie considers his life in America, though stable, is less challenging and changeable. Xie decided to move back to China, bringing his whole family with him.


During his teaching in American and Chinese universities, Xie mostly connects with graduate students. From his point of view, graduate students are adults with their own thoughts and ideas. Professors should not always tell their students what to do or how to do their own research. Students “have to be qualified with the ability to think independently and never expect too much from their professors.” Xie’s emphasis on independence relates closely with his early years’ experiences of learning by himself.
When talking about scientific research, Xie says, “every step made in scientific research is difficult” and thus there is no need to be frustrated. The best way to cope with a question is to actively seek a way to solve it.

Written by: Shengnan Yan
Edited by: Liangdi Xu
Source:
PKU News (Chinese)