In early 2019, Tay-Rong Chang, Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at NCKU, was invited to share his research achievements in the field of topological materials at an annual meeting of the world’s largest physics organization—the American Physical Society. You might think this special honor was given to a high-achiever accustomed to success. However, in a heart-to-heart interview, Tay-Rong Chang shared that his life path hasn’t always run smooth. Professor Chang laughed remembering his abysmal grades from elementary to high school. His parents didn’t mind too much as long as he stayed out of trouble. It was not until he blundered his way into the Department of Physics that he started to find his way. In graduate school, he began devoting himself to his studies, and he attributes his achievements today to 50% hard work and 50% good luck.
Professor Chang mainly studies the physical mechanisms underlying various topological materials. In 2018, he became a researcher in the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Columbus Program and became eligible to receive NTD 10 million in funds per year for 5 years. He also won the Young Theoretical Scientist Award from the National Center for Theoretical Sciences. Only a year and a half later, he has published more than 20 papers, and his achievements are cited internationally.
Slow Start and Blunder into Physics
Despite his impressive achievements, the academic career of Tay-Rong Chang got off to a slow start. He had poor grades from elementary school to senior high school. Indeed, his senior high school entrance exam scores were not high enough for him to get into any public or private school in the Greater Taipei Area. His only option was a private school that enrolled students outside of the entrance exam system. He lived on campus, and with little to distract him, found himself turning to study out of boredom. He memorized reams of information in every subject, including physics and mathematics. “It was probably because I was pretty good at abstract logic, so I liked memorizing my physics notes the best; I memorized one thing and could connect it with other things.” He hated English the most for its lack of logic. "Even now, my English is pretty bad. If I can’t find the words I need, I use body language.”
After graduating from Tunghai University with a major in physics, Tay-Rong Chang followed the lead of his peers and took entrance exams for graduate schools. He was admitted to the Graduate Institute of Physics at National Tsing Hua University after being waitlisted, and it was here that he met the two teachers that had the greatest impact on him. At first, he did research in high-energy physics under the tutelage of Professor Chen-Shiung Hsue. At the time, he did not understand the profound nature of high-energy physics; he thought that taking part in such a cutting-edge field was cool, and this greatly increased his interest in physics. One day, out of the blue, Professor Hsue told him to shift his focus to condensed-matter physics, because he was “too stupid” for high-energy physics. Professor Hsue introduced him to Professor Horng-Tay Jeng. Tay-Rong Chang recalled, “I didn’t want to accept it at the time, but Professor Hsue is very astute; he knows exactly what his students are qualified for and doesn’t want them to waste time in a field they won’t be able to fit in.” He found the impact of a good teacher immeasurable.
Professor Horng-Tay Jeng thus became Tay-Rong Chang’s advisor, as Tay-Rong Chang pursued master’s and then a doctoral degree. Despite all his hard work, his research bore no fruit, and he felt worse as time went on. He developed gastroesophageal reflux, a herniated disc, and cervical spondylotic myelopathy, and didn’t publish a paper until the fifth year of his doctoral program. He was so miserable that he wanted to give up. Then, while he was pursuing his doctoral degree, western physicists began studying topological materials, something unknown in Taiwan. One day, a classmate asked him to redo the calculations in a foreign paper to see if he could reproduce the calculation process. Tay-Rong Chang not only reproduced the process completely but also arrived at the same conclusion as the author. He attributes this to the solid training that Professor Jeng had given him over the years. This was his first contact with the field of topology.
Kindling Interest in Topological Research and Explosive Research Power
This unexpected connection with the foreign paper demonstrated his solid foundation in physics and opportunities began to open up. With the help of an upperclassman at National Tsing Hua University, he served as a visiting researcher at Northeastern University in the US for a year during his doctoral studies. During that time, he worked with teams from Harvard and MIT, which triggered an explosive research power in him; he began publishing one paper after another, with a total of ten publications under his belt by the time he graduated. Following graduation, he became a postdoctoral researcher, serving as a long-term visiting researcher at the National University of Singapore and Princeton University, all while maintaining high research productivity. Since beginning topological research, he has published over 70 papers. The three most important of these (all published in 2016) have been cited more than 700 times.
Professor Chang’s inspirational learning experience has taught him the value of strictness when it comes to his postgraduate students. He is fastidious not only about research but also about making speeches, handing in reports, and working with other research teams. It is his belief that only by honing their various skills during postgraduate school can he help his students achieve the success they desire. Once, when a student was struggling to reach a result, Professor Chang told him, “Neither of us will go home until we get this done.” They worked all day and through the night, achieving their goal at midnight the next day.
Professor Chang is softer on undergraduates. He never does rollcall in class, and he also tells his students that aside from making sure they pass their exams, they should join clubs and mingle with other students to broaden their horizons. He even reminds them to go on dates. He jokes that dating is like taking a mock exam, if his students can gain experience while they are still young, they will be more likely to find a suitable life partner.
Looking back, Professor Chang doesn’t consider any of the challenges he faced as setbacks. “Failing my high school entrance exam, my research not turning out the way I wanted, my papers getting rejected, or having difficulty finding a job. These aren’t setbacks, they’re just part of life. Unless the difficulty is life-or-death, it’s not a setback, just a challenge to overcome.” He still finds himself complaining when things don’t go his way, but that’s just letting off steam. If he encounters a problem he cannot solve, he tries to find a way around it so it affects his life as little as possible. At present, his greatest wish is to pass on his research experience and encourage more academic exchange between Taiwan and the rest of the world. He hopes that his students will become indispensable talent for Taiwan, whether in academia or industry.