HKU Bulletin June 2011 (Vol. 12 No. 2)

His time there straddled September 11, 2001, and there was talk of Uzbekistan being used as airspace for US action against Afghanistan. People in Hong Kong worried about his welfare. "They thought Uzbekistan was dangerous, but we were more worried about people in cities because they'd bombed the twin towers," Dr Ko says. The experience stirred his interest in applying his knowledge to something tangible in the field and he enrolled at HKU to do a PhD developing a search and rescue robot. In the midst of his studies, the 2004 tsunami struck in Southeast Asia and he set off to Indonesia to lend a helping hand. The next year Pakistan was rocked by an earthquake and, again, Dr Ko offered to help with emergency relief. He still managed to complete his PhD in 2006, which he celebrated by organizing a cycling trip from Qinghai to Tibet, which raised $200,000 for MSF and was the subject of a book he wrote of his experiences. The breathless pace continued in 2007 when he joined MSF as a staff member in Hong Kong to help them develop a regional emergency supply hub here, researching such things as how to charter a plane, organize logistics and work within budget. That job was completed in 2008 and he was in the US on holiday - a pure pleasure trip - when the Sichuan earthquake happened. Dr Ko hurried back to Hong Kong to help co-ordinate the MSF mission from here, later going to Sichuan and Gansu, which was also affected. Passing on the torch He then returned to HKU to continue his research, where he learned about the HKU 512 Roundtable; he applied for and received funding to help rebuild a village in Gansu. That link-up with the University led to his present position as the Senior Student Advisor of the Centre of Development and Resources for Students, a role he took up at the end of 2009. His present job on campus may seem disconnected from his previous globetrotting humanitarian efforts, but Dr Ko feels they serve a similar purpose. During the recent Japanese earthquake, for example, while work obligations kept him in Hong Kong, he was still able to offer advice to volunteers, donors and business people on what they could, and should not, do to help. "My main job is to help students find or develop projects that are important to local communities and that have good opportunities for learning through service." "When we talk about global citizenship and professional ethics, it's very difficult to teach these in the classroom. My feeling is if I put students in a rural village to build a bridge, they will understand why it's important to be an ethical engineer. They will look at all the people around them and not want them to be harmed." Added to his goal of 24 months of service is one another: to help provide every student at HKU with at least one opportunity to do service learning. Dr Albert Ko has a target: 24 months of his life to be spent volunteering for humanitarian purposes, not including short sojourns during his holidays. Since he got off to a late start, he has been making up for lost time. Over the past decade he has accumulated 13 months in Sudan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, Tibet and Pakistan with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) (also Gansu and Sichuan, which he doesn't count because they were only for a couple of weeks each). His volunteering began after he completed his undergraduate studies in engineering in the US and returned to Hong Kong, where he was lonely and bored. "When I was in the US, a lot of my friends from Taiwan and other countries had to do military service. In Hong Kong we don't, so I thought, what if everyone spent two years doing something that we think is important? I wanted to do humanitarian work," he says. The work is not easy. He arrived in Sudan in 2000 when the country was in the midst of a civil war and he had to look after all non-medical needs, from accounts and construction to making sure teams did not enter areas where there was gunfire. Living conditions were grim, with temperatures hitting 48 degrees Celsius and no air-conditioners or fans. A comfortable life in Uzbekistan By comparison, his next stint was a luxury. "Uzbekistan was almost like a gift, we had running water, natural gas, electricity. And if you had water and natural gas on the same day, you could have a hot shower." People 43 The University of Hong Kong Bulletin June 2011 A Globetrotting Volunteer Dr Albert Ko, who oversees service learning at HKU, is an extraordinary example to others of what a volunteer can achieve.