Huang Danian:“Serving My Country with My Heart”

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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

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.

The young Huang Danian at Changchun Geological Institute, today’s Jilin University.  Xinhua

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.

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

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 Geo-exploration 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, fixed-wing 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: ‘Chang-chun 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.

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 sub-projects in his realm, one of which is fixed-wing drone aeromagnetic detection system. Xinhua

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.”

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