Outstanding Ouyang Wenkai: Recipient of Full Scholarship from UCSB
In March 2018, Class of 2018 undergraduate student Ouyang Wenkai received Ph.D. offers from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), University of Southern California (USC), and Technical University of Denmark (DTU). Having considered the strength of each university, Ouyang chose to pursue his studies at the Department of Materials at UCSB, ranked the fourth best materials graduate program in the world and the best in the U.S. by the National Research Council.
As a star of SUSTech, Ouyang Wenkai’s college experience reflects his unique character and extraordinary qualities. On the one hand, he is the recipient of the National Scholarship and Outstanding International Volunteer; on the other hand, he has traveled to countries including India, Bangladesh, Palestine, Israel, France and Spain without any electronic equipment.
Ouyang first met us for the interview at Zhiren Residential College. Tanned, very polite and in great spirits, there seemed to be an adventurous and ambitious soul underneath, which may have helped pave the way for his somewhat “legendary” college life.
From the Underdog to the Top of Class within a Year
Ouyang recalled: “Among the newly accepted students in 2014 from Hunan Province, my college entrance examination score was almost the lowest.” On top of that, the whole transition process from Hunan Zhounan Middle School to SUSTech was not easy for him. Ouyang realized that he had to work extremely hard to catch up with others.
Fortunately, the 2+2 education model at SUSTech, where your major remains undeclared until your junior year, allowed Ouyang enough time to work on basic science courses while finding his interests and strengths. Apart from working out, he spent most of the time in the classroom, library, and dormitory. He studied his textbooks and PowerPoint slides carefully and reorganized them into hand-written English notes, often working late into the night. His pile of English notes helped him earn the top spot in his class during his first year at SUSTech.
Ouyang had always wanted to join the Department of Electrical & Electronic Engineering out of his love for studying transistors. However, after much consideration and many in-depth talks with the professor, he entered the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and continued to be a top student there.
Research advisor Cheng Chun said: “Wenkai is a very well-rounded student. He is not only good at academic studies and research but also has an international view and strong sense of responsibility. He took up a leadership role at Zhiren Residential College, helped out his fellow students and joined multiple extracurricular volunteer programs.”
Wang Siting, the recipient of the 2017 National Scholarship, told us that Ouyang Wenkai is a “workaholic with lots of patience, endurance, and perseverance.”
Doing Ph.D. work as an Undergraduate at UCLA
In the first semester of his sophomore year, Ouyang Kaiwen joined Associate Professor Cheng Chun’s laboratory to study two-dimensional materials. The following semester, he became the first SUSTech Materials Science student to apply for the National Students’ Platform for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training Program.
In his junior year, he sought and earned admission into the UCLA-CSST Summer Research Program. Even as a junior, professors and researchers treated him like the other Ph.D. students there: requiring him to attend laboratory group meetings every week and report progress of his experiments to advisor Xie Ya-hong.
Understandably, he faced harsh criticism from the advisor when failing to make any progress on his experiment for weeks. Although Ouyang could barely stand the criticism, he was not willing to give up. He kept trying and communicating with the advisor and finally succeeded. When reflecting upon the experience, Ouyang expressed his gratitude: “The advisor has made a positive impact on me. It is from him that I have learned the correct research method: raising a hypothesis based on theoretical background, follow through the experiment based on the hypothesis, and verify the hypothesis based on experimental findings. I didn’t stick to this method at first and messed up the procedure a little bit, which was a waste of two weeks of work in the laboratory.”
After four months of hard work, he completed the research program and earned the recognition from his advisor, who wrote a reference letter for every university Ouyang applied for during his senior year. Moreover, the advisor himself offered him a full scholarship for his graduate studies at UCLA.
Backpacking across South Asia in Style
Many teenagers and young adults have dreamed of wanderlust on the other side of the world, but the overwhelming majority of them choose to let their dreams remain dreams. Different from the rest, Ouyang stepped out of his comfort zone and embarked on many wild backpacking trips.
“I was eighteen when I finished my freshman year, and I wanted something different for myself.” Ouyang blinked with happiness when recalling this experience. “My parents are supportive of my decision and encouraged me to travel to Europe or Singapore on a budget. I appreciate them for being so understanding, but that’s not my style.”
Ouyang planned on doing something a little “crazier” and went to India and Bangladesh alone without electronic communication devices. “When you don’t have anything that lets you rely on the people you know, you will be forced to talk to others in a brand-new environment.” Ouyang was very excited when talking about his travel experiences across the Indian subcontinent. “One time, I met a local who just graduated from a university in Bangalore, and he invited to a traditional Indian wedding. It was beautiful. I also made friends with a Spanish university student on the train. We both wanted to see some unique temples that are off the tourist radar, so we ventured into the little villages in northern India where no travel information existed at all. We just wanted the coolest experience!” In a way, Ouyang Wenkai’s “crazy experience” is an unusual but extraordinary coming-of-age ceremony.
More Global Experience Leads to a Bigger Heart
Ouyang Wenkai seemed to have it all – stellar academic performance, rich extracurricular activities and supportive family members. However, he was feeling lost and stressed for quite some time. After receiving the National Scholarship in his junior year, he was no longer the underachiever about which nobody knew. Being a campus celebrity came with a lot of stress. “I was always worried about what others thought of me and whether they believed I was worthy of my academic title.” The overthinking soon turned into an overwhelming burden, and Ouyang knew he had to get out of the vicious circle to gain a peaceful mind and the strength for further achievements.
Again, he chose traveling to clear his mind. “I went to Israel and made a couple of European friends during the journey. My experience with them reminded me that focusing on your psychological well-being is far more important than caring about comments or rumors about you.” Having regained a calm peace of mind to pursue his dream, Ouyang Wenkai became a happier person.
“I remember watching a movie about Mother Teresa, and it inspired me to do volunteer work. Later I went to Bangladesh and did volunteer work for two weeks. I was responsible for taking care of the disabled children, and what happened on the first day already made me want to cry. I tried to feed a girl who couldn’t do so herself, but every time she would bring it all back up again. She was so malnourished that her digestive system had completely broken down and later covered with her waste. I did not mind her being ‘dirty,’ but it upset me immensely that there are many people like her whose sufferings are beyond our wildest imagination.” This experience prompted him to fully devote himself to the volunteering cause, leading him to earn an Outstanding International Volunteer Award. He was not only acknowledged for his selfless love but was also officially recognized as the only volunteer in his group to be allowed to perform physiotherapy on disabled children.
“People can’t just only care about themselves. On top of being responsible for yourself and your family, we also need to foster social responsibility. That’s why I want to make contributions to our society as much as possible.” Ouyang Wenkai did not just make that statement, but he followed through with what he believed in, and it has not stopped at a single volunteering experience. He and his family have participated in poverty relief work in Bangladesh for four consecutive years.
Choosing UCSB and Pursuing His Dream
Having written five academic papers (one resubmitted as first author and the other four with co-author status) and with one patent in the process of substantial examination, Ouyang Wenkai is commonly referred to as the “King of Materials Science.” With extraordinary research experience and innovation ability, he received a full scholarship offer from UCSB, as well as Honor Program offers UCLA, USC, and DTU.
When asked about why he chose UCSB over other top universities, he replied with one simple word: “Dream.” Ouyang then explained: “I’ve always wanted to get into UCSB. Moreover, Mechanical Engineering Professor Liao Baolin is one of the top young scholars in the world. A full scholarship also means a high level of recognition from UCSB.” As one of University of California’s ten campuses, UCSB is a leading, science research-based public university in the U.S. During a seven-year period, five professors from UCSB received the Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry, and Economics. With world-leading academic achievements, beautiful campus environment, and favorable Southern Californian climate, UCSB keeps attracting numerous top researchers from around the globe and thus has become one of the world’s major base for academic development.
The UCSB offer is a brand-new start for Ouyang Wenkai, but it also means his days at SUSTech are coming to an end. Reflecting on the past four years here, Ouyang is reluctant to say goodbye. “I was so lucky to spend these years at SUSTech. It’s a wonderful place. The professors here are all excellent and super helpful. For example, my research advisor Cheng Chun taught me how to search for academic literature and conduct scientific research systematically. Because of him, I have mastered the skills that will be vital to my future career. I will always remember the good old days here, and I promise I will come back to witness SUSTech’s better future.”
Text by Fan Yining/Chris Edwards