Interview with Joseph Hun-wei Lee, Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and IAHR President
Interviewed by David Ferras, IHE-Delft, the Netherlands, NewsFlash World  Editor

“The wise delight in water; the benevolent delight in mountains” (Confucius), do you delight in water, in mountains or in both?

This is a Chinese saying in which, to my understanding, the first part has to do with an open minded person receptive to new ideas, whose mind is fluid like the water. The second part has rather to do with a more solid and calm character, which tends to proceed steadily like mountains. I believe both are important, compatible and complementary. On the one hand, in a leadership position you need to listen to other’s ideas and take actions so you have to behave like water. On the other hand, benevolence is also important in an organization, especially in the aspects related with planning, bringing up the younger ones, providing them with a platform to perform, etc. This is what IAHR is all about: a network of experts with a long history and providing a framework for scientific advance. Somewhat we have to do a lot with mountains too. I look forward for IAHR to have members delighting in both water and mountains.

Making balance of your career path since your PhD, what would be the weight (%) of your work in each of the following dimensions: education, research and industry?

In my early years I would say 40% education 40% research 10% professional service and the last 10% for administrative work. I think this is what most academics do early in their career. These numbers have been evolving though along my professional career as I was being appointed to different roles in academia. In my current stage my guess is 50% research and 50% administrative work, including my duty with IAHR, but I also do a bit of teaching. I believe it is important to focus on two at a time, three would imply high multitasking and you could easily sum up more than 100%.

It has been 10 years since the “H” in IAHR was changed from Hydraulics to Hydro-environment. Which were the drivers and what are the advantages? Is there a consensus for the definition of Hydro-environment?

The word Hydro-environment was formally adopted during the IAHR World Congress 2009 in Vancouver, however there were many discussions about it before that year. Hydro-environment reflects where the World of water science and engineering is heading, because water environment problems have provided the momentum for the development of the field and, consequently, many IAHR members are currently working on these problems. For instance, in turbulence modelling, for which IAHR has a classic monograph, its development is partially driven by the need to address environmental problems. This natural trend was being perceived by most of the members and this is how it was adopted as a symbol for our association. Also hydro-environment is a broader and a more abstract term than hydraulics which, in turn, might have different meanings to different people. If you look for the meaning of hydro-environment at the dictionary you will realize there is not such word. IAHR is the only organization with this flag, hence we define its meaning for what we do. Our field is constantly evolving, so it is important to keep its meaning open.

The etymological meaning of hydraulics is actually water in pipes (hydor Greek for water and aulos for pipe). IAHR has a Technical Committee on Fluvial Hydraulics but not on Pipe Hydraulics, shouldn’t we create a new committee for that purpose?

Yesterday I gave a lecture to undergraduate students on Hydraulics. I haven’t done this for 10 years and I defined Hydraulics as the science of the flow of water. To me this is its modern meaning, differing therefore a bit from its original Greek translation. Nonetheless, I agree with the fact that pipe hydraulics has to be strengthened in IAHR association. Right now we have a Working Group on Hydraulic Transients, they are very active and it is very promising towards solving important problems in smart cities. In the last World Congress in Panamá, for instance, they organized a very successful special session on the topic. The problems related with hydraulic transients and the ways to face them are different from 10 years ago. Conservation is primary in water resources development; we must envision more efficient hydraulic systems and for that the development of techniques based on Hydraulic Transients are crucial. Moreover, in this field there is a vast potential for relating both classic hydraulics and modern technologies so I would very much encourage this Working Group to set up a Technical Committee.

What other committees should be strengthened?

IAHR has 21 Technical Committees and 11 Working Groups Committees like the ones on Fluid Mechanics, Hydraulic Machinery and Systems, Hydraulic Structures or Fluvial Hydraulics are some of the traditionally core committees since IAHR origins, and they have remained active over the years providing new ideas driven by top researchers. Also the committees like Water Resources Management, Ice Research and Engineering, Ecohydraulics or the joint committee on Marine Outfalls are also very active committees and contribute to the overall vision of Hydro-environment research. A way to strengthen some committees is empowering the synergies laying beyond their scope by means of more pro-active coordination. For that purpose, the IAHR secretariat is doing a great job. For instance, in Ecohydraulics committee there is a lot of beneficial cross-over potential, energy and expertise are required to further support the ideas laying beneath the committee. To my view, we need to support the committees that are doing very well, nourish them and bring them to another level. In the meantime, we also have to do a few new efforts, like in the case of Ecohydraulics and also in the AI related Working Groups. Recently the White Papers on Artificial Intelligence in Hydro-environment were published, and this kind of initiatives and efforts must endure in order to push further the cross-cutting potential of the field. Finally, a key point are also the monographs, which in the case of IAHR they are powerful and long influential, setting a standard in their respective fields. I hope to see more monographs coming up and to rejuvenate the existing ones.  

What about the regional divisions? Are they well-balanced?

During the past 15 years the Europe and Asia-Pacific Divisions have come a long way and they are very active. Personally, I wish a more steady growth of the Latin-American Division and for the African Division I hope to see a breakthrough. We have been working on it for many years but I believe now is a very good timing, as there was a general consensus at the Council meeting to give more attention to the African Division. On 2012 I led a delegation to Ethiopia, a country with good Universities and willing to internationalize but with a lot of water resources problems. Capacity building is the key aspect in which we need to put our efforts. We must focus on the areas in which they can benefit from IAHR and invite them to get involved in our events and initiatives.

In academia it is not so easy to work on what you like and where you like. After your studies in the USA, was it easy for you to come back to Hong Kong? Any advice for the young researchers?

Hong Kong was very different at that time and the way back was not easy. I went to USA when I was 17 year old, I did my bachelor, MSc and PhD at MIT and I lectured in Delaware University for 3 years. Then I just went back home without thinking too much. Hong Kong was developing so fast that I didn’t want to be left behind, that was my feeling at that time. I grew up in a British system, then I had a period as undergraduate and postgraduate student in the American system, and when I came back to Hong Kong there was still the British colonial system and it took me a while to get used to it again. Nowadays, in the era of Globalization the context is very different.

My advice to the young career researchers, especially in the context of academia, is to focus on providing good quality in teaching. We tend to focus too much on research metrics but we have to keep in mind the big picture. Education is the basis of science, if there is no good quality education in the long term will affect the future generation of researchers. Young academics have a very fresh mind during their initial years. It is therefore during this period in when they have to cultivate good habits and good professional ethics.

Do you have any hobbies in which you are as passionate as in your work?

In my younger days, and even now, I am a competitive table-tennis player. During my period in the USA I was enrolled with the MIT team for table-tennis and I ranked top 5 in New England. More recently, when I was vice-president in HKUST and HKU I used to represent the University in competitions at the national level, so I still do ok in table-tennis. My other passion is the study of ballet. I am a full member of the Royal Academy of Dance, for which I passed the professional intermediate exam at the age of 47. Nowadays I treat it like a sport, because ballet is very demanding. Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in 2017 made an hour long production explaining my work on environmental hydraulics in which I also explained and showed my passion for ballet. In the following links you can see the two episodes: Travelling with Water - Joseph LEE (I), and Travelling with Water - Joseph LEE (II).