As President and Vice-Chancellor of this University for twelve years, Professor Lap-Chee Tsui has passively endured many of my honorary degree citations. Now today he is the star and must listen to what I have to say about him!
Lap-Chee has been my boss, my friend and even my goalkeeper when we played soccer together. But it is not his goalkeeping skills that have earned him today's honour.
Lap-Chee has proved himself both a remarkably talented front-line researcher and administrator. He was born into a cultured family background in Shanghai but circumstances pressured his family to move to Hong Kong when he was three years of age. He completed his primary and secondary schooling at local schools in Kowloon whilst his family maintained a modest life style. Although his early dream had been to become an architect, he gained admission into the Chinese University of Hong Kong which did not offer architectural studies so he studied science instead. Architecture's loss was undeniably science's and the world's gain! He graduated from the Chinese University in 1972 and completed his Masters there in 1974. He then travelled to the United States to work for his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh. Having studied in a largely British orientated educational regime he found study methods in the States rather different. Of this he jokingly observed:
‘It's like if you go to play basketball but all your life you only played soccer; it takes a while not to kick the ball!'
Notwithstanding these differences, he successfully completed his doctorate in 1979. Then, in what proved to be a momentous decision in his life, in 1981 he moved to Canada to work in the Department of Genetics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto as a molecular geneticist. It was at that hospital during the next twenty years that he made his great discoveries.
Cystic fibrosis is a major scourge affecting primarily young Caucasians. The disease produces a thick sticky mucous in sufferer's lungs and causes interference with their breathing and digestion. It also provides an optimal environment for bacterial growth in the lungs. It is a serious killer. Lap-Chee's primary research project was to identify the gene which caused cystic fibrosis. The task was immensely difficult. It has been said that looking for the cystic fibrosis gene was very much like trying to find a particular house on the globe even without knowing what continent it was on! Lap-Chee modestly tells me that his labours were guided by instinct and hunches. But he and his team were eventually successful in 1989, locating the elusive gene on chromosome 7. They discovered that three of the 250,000 base gene pairs of the gene were missing in those suffering from the illness. Indeed, both Mary-Claire and Lap-Chee were at one time simultaneously working on cystic fibrosis as collaborators and competitors! This discovery proved a major breakthrough in human genetics and has significantly contributed to treatment strategies for those afflicted.
Much revenue was derived from the discovery but Lap-Chee ensured that this was ploughed back onto research and for the benefit of the Hospital for Sick Children.
Lap-Chee also played a significant role in the Human Genome Project and was President of the Human Genome Organization, the international organisation of scientists involved in the Human Genome Project, from 2000 until 2002.
He was a prodigious worker and researcher, publishing more than 300 articles and serving on the editorial boards of more than twenty international peer-reviewed journals.
Our University was privileged by his acceptance of appointment as our Vice-Chancellor in 2002, a post he held for the next twelve years. He was, in my respectful view, an excellent leader. I only have time to mention here a few aspects of his numerous achievements.
Lap-Chee firmly espoused the internationalisation of our University both in terms of students and staff. He pointed out that local students and teachers gained immensely from contact with students and teachers from other countries. He said:
‘With more classmates from different cultures and backgrounds, discussion blossoms and the entire classroom dynamic changes.'
Strenuous efforts were also made to attract first rate postgraduate students from other countries who would become a major source of our future research and teaching strength.
As a cutting-edge researcher himself, Lap-Chee knew the importance of research and, using a carrot and stick approach, guided the University into becoming a world class research centre.
He was also a great advocate of the twin virtues of academic freedom and freedom of speech maintaining that, whilst the institution should always remain politically neutral, individual staff members and students were entitled to express their values and beliefs. He observed that academic freedom was part of our University's DNA and few know more about DNA than he! He also promoted active civil engagement by way of civic education and providing assistance to those less privileged.
Finally, under his leadership and thanks to the generosity of philanthropists including Dr Lui Che Woo, we were blessed with the magnificent new Centennial Campus. I can speak with personal experience as to how it has ameliorated and enhanced both learning and teaching.
Of course, Lap-Chee endured several challenges but he faced and overcame these with dignity and courage.
Sadly, Lap-Chee left his post in 2014. I cannot improve upon the sentiments expressed by our former Council Chairman Dr CH Leong in his valedictory address to Lap-Chee which ended:
‘On a personal note I admire Lap-Chee's modesty, humility, civility and integrity. He always leads by example and he leads by standing behind the people he cares about. He has instilled a strong sense of team spirit over the years and placed the University in an extremely strong position and with an internationally respected standing.'
I asked Lap-Chee what he missed most about leading our University. He replied with his usual smile and chuckle:
‘What I am most proud of and what I will miss most is the HKU family and its supportive community of staff, students and alumni.'
In turn we will miss him. We were indeed privileged to have such a fine leader at our helm.
It is my honour and privilege to present to you Professor Lap-Chee Tsui for the award of Doctor of Science honoris causa.
Citation written and delivered by Professor Michael Wilkinson, the Public Orator of the University.