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SIT-Summer Institute in Taiwan
Academic Exchange & Cultural Experience in Taiwan
Kevin Pham
1. Introduction

This experience in Taiwan has shown me how great of a difference Taiwan is from the USA. I was surprised at how easy and simple it was to communicate my ideas. By being a little careful and using vocabulary that is specific to my field and in their line of work, it took very little time for my colleagues to understand the scope of my project. All of them were extremely hardworking. They were very motivated to do their research and would work from morning until night without any complaints. Every day that I come in, I would notice that many of them have been there an hour or two before lunch and stay there working until dinner. Back at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), I normally took many breaks and would often leave the office for a few hours before returning to do more work. The environment was much more laidback at UTA than it is at NCU. This, in turn, greatly motivated me to work much harder than I would normally.

One of the things that made communicating concepts easy was that each colleague had a good understanding of the basics. If I mention a specific concept and phenomenon that they know, I would receive a full explanation and mathematics behind the concept. My colleagues excelled at remembering the mathematical formulas and equations that would tie into the concept or phenomenon. On the other hand, if the conversation was about the global view or about the broader application of the concept, then they could not follow the conversation. Even at times when the host professor was translating the physical picture into mandarin, she would have to give a lecture about how the concepts are connected. Occasionally, the conversations would become a conversation where I would be explaining a new concept to them because it was deeper than what they knew or they would be explaining a new area of research that I had not known about.

2. Approach to solving problems

For every research project that I was helping with and discussed, the process that the professors at NCU used was to have a starting point and an end point. The project outcome was already known before the project was started. The student’s job was to discover and work out the details of how to get from the start to the finish. Because the outcome of the project was already known, most of the work included writing a short simulation code to perform the study and prove that the outcome was as expected. This was done to greatly reduce the amount of time involved with the project. By knowing both the start and the outcome, it can be easy to predict the duration of the project and it is known before beginning the project that the project will succeed. There is very little risk in doing this approach.

Through many of the projects that I had worked on previous at my graduate institution at UTA, the research approach taken was of a different kind than the approach by NCU. Similar to the NCU approach, we had a starting point. The main difference is that we do not know what the outcome of the project it is. We know the starting and we know the method that we will use. Occasionally, this has led to a few failed projects but the outcome of the projects almost always contain surprises. These surprises will usually be turned into future projects and collaborations. This type of approach is much more similar to a trial and error approach compared to NCU’s.

It feels that more new physics can be found using this trial and error approach. By using the NCU approach, many of the variables are controlled and therefore the outcome does not vary from the idea. While with the trial and error approach, many more variables can be freely changed. Because we do not know what the outcome should be, we can freely change the variables until we get something that makes sense or until we get something that produces amazing new effects. For the NCU approach, the variables are must be tuned, such that, the outcome is what we want.

One of the things about the NCU approach that amazes me, is that it requires incredible detailed knowledge to understand both the start and outcome of the project. I believe that this approach goes hand in hand with the type of knowledge that I had noticed previously. By understand each individual concept to great detail, the outcome of the project can be predicted. It is not possible for me, with my currently knowledge, to work on this kind of project. I do not have understand and know the details of a given concept enough to be able to predict the outcome. This makes me realize that my detailed knowledge is very lacking. I understand the large concepts and theories but I do not truly understand the behavior and mathematical reasoning behind the concepts.

3. Final thoughts about my field in Taiwan and USA

Putting all of this together, I have been told and I have seen that in Taiwan, the research projects in my field will have the students master a specific instrument or the students will create a short simulation that is usually used only that for that project. If a simulation is used for more than a handful of times, then that simulation is considered to be lucky. A master’s thesis would involve the creation of the simulation. Many of the students and colleagues that I have met that created a simulation for their master’s thesis, do not understand the physical principles that they are simulating. Most of them only know that they were told to simulate this equation and to have this kind of particle input. They are simply going through the motions. The PhD dissertation would be the usage of the instrument or simulation that was created for the master’s thesis. A possible problem with this approach is that 90% of the simulation could have previously been created by another institution or even another member of the same lab. Since most of the simulation is created for a specific purpose, it is very difficult for another person to modify an existing simulation. In some cases, it would take just as long, if not longer, to modify the simulation rather than creating a new one.

In my specific field of specialty, there exist a few large global simulations. Each global simulation is worked on by a large number of researchers and simulations are freely available to the community to use. These simulations, such as LFM, solve many equations and provide very simple outputs. They are designed to be used by others that are not in the know about the simulation code. I had originally thought this was a much simpler and elegant approach than that of Taiwan researchers. After bringing LFM and getting it to run on the computing cluster at NCU, I found that it was very difficult to teach and explain how to use LFM without taking too much time. Even though LFM was designed to be used by others, it is still a large global simulation and it has many components and overhead associated with it. This caused a lot of my colleagues to be wary of using and learning how to use LFM.

This program, to go to Taiwan, has greatly broadened my view of how to approach physical problems. Sometimes it is much better to approach the problem using a very detailed approach and sometimes it is much better to use a try and see approach. There were many times in which I was surprised by a new physical phenomenon. My colleagues would then proceed to explain to me that if I look at this mathematically, then the phenomenon is easily explained. I learned about many assumptions that are made by my colleagues. They assumed that I understand many of the basic mathematical equations while I assumed that they understood the basic physical concepts. This caused many misunderstandings but it also provided a different look at d ideas at how to solve various problems encountered in our research.
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