A Surprising Career Journey
2020-01-06

Once keen to forge a career as a comedian, Professor Yang Wang talks about his professional journey and reveals what he hopes to achieve in his new role as Vice-President for Institutional Advancement

Mathematics was not Yang Wang’s first choice when he enrolled at the University of Science and Technology of China in 1978. But when a physical exam on entry that confirmed he was colorblind meant that Physics was off the table, Wang settled on Mathematics – and excelled, going on to Harvard University to complete a PhD, before, in 1989, joining the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He would go on to become a world-renowned mathematician with wide-ranging research interests. But at this point, he still wasn’t convinced.

“I wasn’t sure that this was what I wanted to do. So, I experimented. One of my Harvard classmates was working for Bell Labs at the time, but he received an offer to write jokes for David Letterman, and kept bragging that he was making more money as a comedian. I thought, Gee! I have a better sense of humor than him!” says Wang with a laugh.

Jay Leno
Young Prof. Wang in Harvard University

He decided to try his hand at comedy too, and began writing up to 20 jokes a day and sending them to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “I didn’t hear from them, which was disappointing. So, one day, I called to see what was going on.” Jay Leno himself eventually returned Wang’s call and asked him to be patient. A few days later, a check arrived in the mail. “He bought one of my jokes!” recalls Wang. “I was really happy.” That was until he considered the time he had committed and what he had received for that one joke – about US$40. “It wasn’t a good return on investment, so I decided to stick with mathematics,” he says.

Wang spent eighteen years at Georgia Tech, first as an Assistant Professor and then as Associate Head of the School of Mathematics, followed by seven years as Department Head of Mathematics at Michigan State University, where he excelled at recruitment in particular, hiring three winners of the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship. He also managed to heal deep division within the department. To provide a sense of the magnitude of that task, he recounts that during an American presidential election he was at an international conference in Europe and overheard an attendee, whom he had never met, quip that ‘Anyone who aspires to be the President of the USA needs to go to the Michigan State Math Department for training.’ “It was the ultimate compliment,” he says.

Wang was then approached by the University of Houston for the position of Dean of Science and by HKUST for Department Head. The latter was less appealing given its similarity to his previous role, but he kept an open mind and visited HKUST’s campus.

Prof. Wang Yang
Prof. Wang said HKUST will focus on recruitment and alumni partnership to propel recognition.

“I was pondering a future in Houston versus one in Hong Kong. I consulted with friends who said the center of gravity for research was shifting east and this was a good opportunity,” says Wang. It has proved true. While the US may still be home to the highest caliber research in the world, China is rapidly catching up. “We will see China becoming an equal or comparable power in the next 10 to 20 years. But what Asia offers – particularly the Greater Bay Area including Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai – is an opportunity for innovation that is hard to beat.”

Choosing HKUST, Wang progressed to Dean of Science and in October 2020 was named Vice-President for Institutional Advancement. “I will miss the academic side but as VPIA for both the Clear Water Bay and Guangzhou campuses, I have the opportunity to make a significant impact.”

Recruitment is one area he is keen to focus on. While institutions in Mainland China may have greater resources, he says, “we have an academic environment less driven by titles, and a more western-style research environment with lots of academic freedom, which many candidates prefer.”

Wang is also keen to strengthen ties with alumni. “It’s about partnership. We should engage alumni to build a relationship and look at ways to promote our alumni and help them thrive in order to propel HKUST to recognition. This is something I hope we can work on together to grow the HKUST brand.”

This article was originally published in the HKUST Alumni Newsletter (Winter 2020).