Huang Da­nian: “Serv­ing My Coun­try with My Heart”

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Ru Yuan

On Jan­uary 8, 2017, noted Chi­nese geo­physi­cist Huang Da­nian died of bile duct cancer at the age of 58. He had al­ready fallen into a coma at the Changchun-based hos­pi­tal that was treat­ing him. More than 800 peo­ple at­tended his fu­neral, in­clud­ing sci­en­tists, friends and stu­dents from all over the world.

Huang was an expert in deep earth ex­plo­ration tech­nol­ogy, who re­turned to China in 2009 af­ter spend­ing nearly two decades study­ing and work­ing in Bri­tain. Over the fol­low­ing seven years, along­side coach­ing 18 doc­toral can­di­dates and 26 post­grad­u­ate stu­dents, Huang and his team helped China sig­nif­i­cantly nar­row its gap with de­vel­oped coun­tries in terms of ac­cu­rate statis­tics on deep earth ex­plo­ration, mak­ing the coun­try a global leader in de­vel­op­ing deep earth ex­plo­ration equip­ment.

Re­turn to the Moth­er­land

In 2008, China launched a pro­gram called “Re­cruit­ment Pro­gram of Global Ex­perts,” also known as the “Thou­sand Tal­ents Plan,” to at­tract world-class pro­fes­sion­als in­clud­ing over­seas Chi­nese ex­perts and for­eign spe­cial­ists to work in the coun­try. Huang be­came one of the first to par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram. With an im­proved en­vi­ron­ment for sci­en­tific re­search and strong gov­ern­men­tal sup­port, the pro­gram has now at­tracted more than 6,000 sci­en­tists and re­searchers to China.

In late 2009, Huang landed at Bei­jing Cap­i­tal In­ter­na­tional Air­port with his wife.

He be­gan work­ing for Changchun-based Jilin Univer­sity where, more than 30 years ago, he stud­ied in its De­part­ment of Ap­plied Geo­physics. Also in 2009, China launched the Sino­probe project, which aimed to in­stall high-tech cam­eras on air­craft, ships and satel­lites to en­able them to see through the earth’s crust with­out phys­i­cally pen­e­trat­ing it to de­tect the com­po­si­tion, struc­ture and phys­i­cal prop­er­ties of the litho­sphere. Huang was in­vited to serve as the chief sci­en­tist of a branch of the pro­gram.

With so much to do in such a short pe­riod of time, Huang im­mersed him­self in the work. He slept many nights in his of­fice. His col­leagues at Jilin Univer­sity re­called that to max­i­mize his re­search time, Huang typ­i­cally worked well into the night and caught late-night flights at the last minute. Even his driver be­came ac­cus­tomed to driv­ing the sci­en­tist to the air­port at mid­night. Many other ex­am­ples of his re­search en­thu­si­asm can be found. The of­fice build­ing where Huang worked is sup­posed to be com­pletely locked up by mid­night, but since he left so late so of­ten, the se­cu­rity guard would beg him to “leave on time.”

While many of his co­work­ers called him a worka­holic, Huang pre­ferred the term “lu­natic.” “China is in ur­gent need of ‘lu­natics’ if it is to be­come a stronger coun­try,” Huang said. “It would be an honor if I could be one of them.” Once, be­cause some pa­per­work had yet to be sub­mit­ted for a hanger that had just been con­structed to test drones, city in­spec­tors deemed it an il­le­gal struc­ture and called in de­mo­li­tion ve­hi­cles. Huang lay down on the ground to block the mas­sive bull­dozer. How­ever, such “lu­nacy”—when ap­plied to sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and duty—is pre­cisely what en­abled Huang to re­veal the se­crets hid­ing un­der the ground.

Strate­gic Sci­en­tist

Af­ter Huang passed away, Jilin Univer­sity hailed him as a “strate­gic sci­en­tist.” While some didn’t un­der­stand the dec­la­ra­tion, Liu Cai, dean of the Col­lege of Geo­ex­plo­ration Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy at Jilin Univer­sity, called it proper and ap­pro­pri­ate.

“A strate­gic sci­en­tist is de­fined by whether his or her work is meant to ad­dress the coun­try’s needs or has more in­ter­na­tional vi­sion, and whether it can pro­duce de­vel­op­ments that will truly help the home­land,” ex­plains Liu Cai. “I think Huang is highly qual­i­fied.”

Along with serv­ing as the chief sci­en­tist of a branch of the Sino­probe project, Huang also co­or­di­nated six sub-projects in his realm, namely the mo­bile plat­form data pro­cess­ing and in­te­gra­tion sys­tem, ground elec­tro­mag­netic de­tec­tion sys­tem, fixed­wing drone aero­mag­netic de­tec­tion sys­tem, ca­ble­less self-po­si­tion­ing seis­mo­graph, con­ti­nen­tal sci­en­tific drilling and demon­stra­tion ar­eas for field ex­per­i­ments.

All six are in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary, highly in­te­grated, and data-heavy re­search projects en­hanc­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. “Strate­gic sci­en­tists push re­search to a higher level through in­te­gra­tion,” adds Liu. “They dif­fer from sci­en­tists in spe­cific fields.”

The Smart Ocean Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Re­search In­sti­tute of Jilin Univer­sity was founded by Huang. Pro­fes­sor Cui Junhong, cur­rent head of the in­sti­tute, says that Huang helped her de­cide to re­turn to China from the United States.

An­other alumna of Jilin Univer­sity, Cui ma­jored in com­puter sci­ence be­fore work­ing in the United States for 18 years. She is expert in two fields: smart ocean tech­nol­ogy (i.e. un­der­wa­ter acous­tic com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­work­ing) and the in­te­gra­tion of pro­duc­tion, teach­ing and re­search.

In 2014, when Cui was in­vited to speak at Jilin Univer­sity, her alma mater ex­horted her to re­turn to China and work for the school.

“That sounds like a nice idea, but my re­search field is the ocean,” she re­sponded. “How can I do ocean re­search in land­locked Changchun?”

“Talk with Pro­fes­sor Huang,” sug­gested one ad­min­is­tra­tor.

“I soon met Pro­fes­sor Huang and talked with him through­out an af­ter­noon, so we had din­ner to­gether,” re­calls Cui.

Dur­ing the meet­ing, Cui made up her mind to re­turn to the univer­sity to con­duct oceanic re­search. “Pro­fes­sor Huang de­scribed to me his mas­sive sys­tem which com­bines ex­plo­rations of the deep con­ti­nen­tal crust and of deep sea to­gether. I still vividly re­mem­ber what he said that day: ‘Changchun is in­deed a land­locked city, but we can ac­cess the sea eas­ily by our­selves.’”

With con­sid­er­able help from Huang, the Smart Ocean Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Re­search In­sti­tute was soon es­tab­lished. At present, prepa­ra­tion work for Jilin Univer­sity’s School of Marine Sciences has al­ready be­gun in China’s coastal city of Shen­zhen. “I think Pro­fes­sor Huang never missed on any crit­i­cal turn­ing points,” Cui as­serted.

A Sac­ri­fic­ing Pioneer

Born in 1958 in Nan­ning, Guangxi, Huang’s love for geo­physics started in child­hood. Both his par­ents taught at a lo­cal ge­o­log­i­cal in­sti­tu­tion and passed the pas­sion down to their son.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity, Huang went to Bri­tain for fur­ther study in 1993, as one of the 30 stu­dents spon­sored by the gov­ern­ment that year. Dur­ing his stay in Bri­tain, he suc­cess­fully com­bined Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tual in­tegrity with Bri­tish pre­ci­sion. In 1996, Huang ob­tained a doc­toral de­gree in geo­physics af­ter fin­ish­ing top of his class. Huang later joined the Bri­tish geo­phys­i­cal ser­vice company ARKEX as a se­nior geo­physi­cist. By then, he was al­ready an ad­vanced re­searcher on high res­o­lu­tion air­borne and marine grav­ity gra­diom­e­try, mainly used in oil, gas and min­eral re­sources ex­plo­ration in the sea and on land.

Dur­ing his stay in Bri­tain, Huang re­mained com­mit­ted to his moth­er­land. He long dreamed of go­ing back to “serve my coun­try with my whole heart,” ac­cord­ing to his fam­ily. While liv­ing in Europe, he fre­quently flew back to China to par­tic­i­pate in aca­demic ac­tiv­i­ties and work­shops re­lated to his field. So, Huang’s de­ci­sion to go back in 2009 didn’t sur­prise many. For the geo­physi­cist, it was nei­ther a ran­dom choice nor an impulse.

“I be­lieve that Huang also felt he was hitting a ceil­ing in Bri­tain, so by re­turn­ing to the moth­er­land he could chal­lenge him­self while con­tribut­ing to China,” opines Gao Ping, an of­fi­cial who re­cruited Huang for the tal­ent pro­gram. It was clear that China was fund­ing high-qual­ity sci­ence projects and Huang wanted to be in­volved.

Huang’s love for his coun­try lasted to the very end. Dur­ing his last days, Huang still an­swered stu­dents’ ques­tions while re­ceiv­ing trans­fu­sions, as­signed work and wrote rec­om­men­da­tion let­ters for col­leagues.

“Ide­ally, I want to be a pioneer who makes sac­ri­fices,” Huang de­clared dur­ing the last in­ter­view of his life on De­cem­ber 5, 2016. “I am al­ready in my fifties. I hope I can do some­thing to make sci­en­tific work eas­ier for fu­ture Chi­nese peo­ple.”

April 10, 2011: Huang Da­nian gives a lec­ture at Jilin Univer­sity. Af­ter he re­turned to work in the univer­sity, Huang coached 18 doc­toral can­di­dates and 26 post­grad­u­ate stu­dents. Xinhua

The young Huang Da­nian at Changchun Ge­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute, to­day’s Jilin Univer­sity. Xinhua April 18, 2013: Huang at the 2013 an­nual meet­ing of the Sino­probe project. Be­side him is the pre­sen­ta­tion model of the sound­ing borer de­vel­oped by him and his team for the project. Xinhua

Novem­ber 22, 2010: Huang (cen­ter) dis­cusses ques­tions with his team mem­bers. Af­ter Huang passed away, he was hailed as a “strate­gic sci­en­tist” for his abil­ity to push re­search to a higher level through in­te­gra­tion. Xinhua

Jan­uary 20, 2013: Huang (sec­ond from left) car­ries out fixed-wing drone test­ing un­der ex­tremely cold weather. Serv­ing as the chief sci­en­tist of a branch of the Sino­probe project, Huang co­or­di­nated six sub­pro­jects in his realm, one of which is fixed-wing drone aero­mag­netic de­tec­tion sys­tem. Xinhua

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