Graduation Ready: Gao Hanwen, Taking the Leap


Gao Hanwen, a senior from Shandong Province, remembers visiting ShanghaiTech as a high school senior for Open Campus Day. In a one on one interview with professors, he asked them about scientific research. “All of the physics I knew was from the exam, was from the book and that's totally different from the research. So, in the one hand, I am very interested in physics. I was confused whether the physics I knew from exams is the same as scientific research. To my surprise, they seemed to have the same story as me when they were young, when they were in university. They started to tell me their stories, and I gradually learned that research needs a very high level of knowledge, but we need to start developing it step by step.” Having that frank and encouraging conversation with ShanghaiTech professors who seemed really willing to engage him as an equal impressed Gao. “Maybe that conversation, that interview with them, gave me the most confidence about my future research and also it made me realize that Shanghai Tech is the school that cared about me.”

Studying physics at ShanghaiTech’s School of Physical Science and Technology gave Gao opportunities that would have been hard to come by at larger, more traditional universities. Gao traveled to UC Berkeley and Oxford during his summers to participate in summer study abroad sessions. While the research he did over his summer at Oxford was quite different from the research he’d been engaged in at ShanghaiTech, having to start from scratch was a useful learning experience for him, he said. “Honestly I had to read over 100 papers there, so the best thing I got there is that I learned how to do research in a new area, how to start a new direction. So now I am not afraid to do something different,” he said. 

He first entered the lab in sophomore year. Starting to do research is always scary, he said, but ShanghaiTech forced him to start by himself and face the challenge. “Everyone needs their time to start from zero. But my teacher here in the Shanghai Advanced Institute, they are very helpful.”

Gao’s research at ShanghaiTech has focused on a protein in the eye. People are very sensitive to light, so the reactions in your eyes must be very quick, very fast. And now you have to use this ultrafast technique to study how you can catch light.

What Gao loves about physics is “studying a world that's totally different from your reality. But you can devote all yourself to the mysterious world, to the unknown world. Every step you make, someone never has reached before.”

Gao says that what he learned at ShanghaiTech was courage. It took courage to attend ShanghaiTech at a time when no one in his family knew anything about the brand-new university, courage to enter the lab as a second-year student, courage to go abroad to study at two different institutions, and courage to ask his girlfriend to go out with him. 

Gao takes that courage with him as the first ShanghaiTech graduate to attend Brown University in the United States as a PhD student where he will do research in Physical Chemistry.