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Gregory Joseph Herczeg: Everyone in China should be proud of their efforts to contain COVID-19

MAR . 11 2020
Peking University, March 11, 2020: My name is Gregory Joseph Herczeg (沈雷歌). I have worked at PKU for over eight years and I am now an Associate Professor of Astronomy and Associate Director for Science at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. My research focuses on how stars and planets form.

Gregory Joseph Herczeg (central) and his students

I went back to my home country, the USA, in January just before the COVID-19 outbreak, since I have a visiting astronomer position at California Institute of Technology so I can continue to do some research through this holiday period and maintain collaborations at Caltech. I feel terrible for everyone in China, and especially those in Hubei. This epidemic is very scary. We do worry about the coronavirus spreading to the US and elsewhere, and the coronavirus is the main topic of every conversation. Fortunately, so far China has done a great job at limiting the spread. I am also affected by worrying about all of the students and staff at PKU, and everyone in Hubei. Everyone is scared about the virus, scared about the economic (and, for PKU, educational) impacts, and wondering when they can return to a normal life. 

I am very eager to return to my home, Beijing! We will need to celebrate when life returns to normal. I do not know when I will be able to return, and like everyone else, I worry about the economy, and whether starting the economy will lead to a new spike in transmissions. I am watching closely for the change in number of new cases outside of Hubei. Unfortunately, I imagine that the quarantine of Wuhan will continue for a while, so as teachers we will need to ensure that those students are able to access materials even after other students have returned to campus.

PKU is doing a great job in fighting the coronavirus. I’m especially proud to be part of PKU because PKU-affiliated hospitals sent many medical workers to Wuhan. They are in my thoughts, and I hope they stay healthy and treat as many people as possible. The health care workers who have gone to Hubei are incredibly important, and we cannot thank them enough. PKU has also trained medical professionals and biological researchers who are now spreading across the globe; some are likely leading the race for a vaccine. Meanwhile, PKU is also doing its best to keep education moving while ensuring the safety of students and staff.

Medical workers from PKU-affiliated hospitals

Honestly, I think e-learning is not as effective as face-to-face teaching, and it will introduce new challenges for both teachers and students. However, e-learning is far better than not teaching. We are also re-starting some science discussions and seminars by video as well, so I hope that everyone can continue to be productive in education and research despite the challenges. Video discussions are routine to facilitate research collaborations, so this won’t be too different. It’s not perfect, but it’s good, and good is enough right now. It’s a very pragmatic solution.

I feel terrible for everyone affected by the outbreak. Beyond the direct victims, so many people are scared and have isolated themselves in their homes for weeks, with no clear end in sight. People in Hubei are suffering incredibly; people elsewhere consider themselves lucky despite having such a massive disruption in their lives.

And yet, I’m impressed that everyone in China is doing what must be done to combat the virus. Everyone in China is sacrificing for the common good, both for China and for the world. I think that everyone can be proud that they are contributing to this fight, and that China as a whole should be proud of in the way it has combated the virus. Everyone should be proud of their sacrifice and contribution, and I expect society to emerge from this disaster stronger than before.

Peking University has been a great place for my career, both personally and scientifically. Meanwhile, I am honored to be a recipient of Peking University Friendship Award. It has been wonderful getting to know so many amazing students, faculty, and staff. Everyone is ambitious in their goals of contributing to science and society and are very friendly and supportive of each other. Our astronomy leadership is fantastic, and they receive robust support from the university that allows us to flourish. I am always trying to recruit the best people to come here. It’s not only the best place in China, PKU is also very competitive when compared against top institutes elsewhere around the globe.

Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University

It’s now been over eight years since I joined Peking University, and likely my career. Astronomy at PKU is growing into a world leader under the guidance and direction of Professors Luis Ho and Wu Xuebing. Our ambitious faculty have the independence to pursue our own research interests, and with guidance and innovative initiatives to turn us into the future. This development is made possible because of strong support from the university most of all, but also national funding organizations and the Kavli Foundation.

It’s great to be surrounded by so many talented people, including our students, postdocs, and staff. Our staff have very difficult jobs, given the international nature of PKU astronomy. At the Kavli Institute, English is the working language, and dealing with foreigners like myself can be challenging for them! Right now, they are constantly worrying about our many students and postdocs, making sure that they stay healthy and also sane while secluding themselves in their apartments. They are a truly superb team, and they help to create a caring environment.

My most memorable moments have been with students, especially in research but also in teaching. It’s wonderful to watch students mature scientifically and becomes colleagues. I love teaching an undergraduate course in introductory astronomy to non-majors, as well as a Ph.D. course on the interior structure and evolution of stars. The students in the intro class are not majors and choose to take the course, on top of their usual course load, to learn something about astronomy because they are curious! It’s a lot of fun for me, and I hope for the students too! I look forward to this class again.

Written by: Gregory Joseph Herczeg
Edited by: Huang Weijian