DKU-Duke team’s space plan wins U.S.-China Student Challenge | Duke Kunshan University

DKU-Duke team’s space plan wins U.S.-China Student Challenge

By Meixuan Wang ’23
Student Media Center

A team of undergraduate students from Duke Kunshan University (DKU) and Duke University has won an international competition for its proposal for a space program to help lift relations between China and the United States.

Lan Tang and Hong Pham from DKU and Spencer Kaplan and Joanne Kim from Duke formed one of the two winning teams in this year’s U.S.-China Student Challenge, an initiative led by Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Their proposal, “Space as a Catalyst for U.S.-China Cooperation,” suggested the two countries develop and manage a joint satellite platform – overseen by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – that can contribute to global scientific data sets on epidemiology, climate change, and other areas of mutual concern, and build a peaceful, cooperative bilateral relationship. The program would also seek to involve the international community and use research in outer space to benefit global society.

From left: Hong Pham, Joanne Kim, Spencer Kaplan and Lan Tang worked together remotely to complete their proposal.

“I’m very proud of this team of students,” said Marcia France, dean of undergraduate studies at DKU. “In their success I see the strong connection between Duke and Duke Kunshan, and how DKU’s liberal arts curriculum helps students challenge themselves to constantly seek innovation and explore new areas of knowledge.”

This year’s U.S.-China Student Challenge attracted more than 100 participants from 37 leading institutions in the U.S and China including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Fudan University in Shanghai, and the University of Hong Kong. Each team is required to have two students based in China and two in the U.S.

Tang said she first learned about the competition last fall in an email from Annemieke van den Dool, assistant professor of environmental policy at DKU. She quickly teamed up with fellow third-year student Pham, and the pair received help from professors at Duke and DKU to connect with public policy majors Kaplan, now in his senior year, and junior Kim.

Creating space for peace: Watch the DKU-Duke team present
their proposal for the U.S.-China Student Challenge


Rather than focus on the economy or politics, the team looked to the stars, and over the next six months wrote their proposal on how a China-U.S. satellite system could help fight disease and climate change.

With the team spread around the world, Pham said it was hard to find a meeting time that worked for everyone. “We often forgot we were in different time zones,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, Tang said she enjoyed the team dynamic that resulted from mixing students from Chinese and U.S. universities. “We exchanged our thoughts and came up with many inspiring ideas,” she said. “We decided to focus on academic exchange as a driving force to help reset U.S.-China relations from the bottom up.”

Importantly, the team wanted the proposal to be neutral and free of bias. Pham said the team revised the proposal more than 10 times and asked advice from professors in history, public policy, and data science.

She added that she would encourage any student to take part in similar international competitions.

“No matter what major you study, if you have passion in the area and actively participate in discussions, you will certainly get something out of it,” she said. “It doesn't matter if you win or not – what matters is that you will learn something new and know how to collaborate with others, and maybe produce something meaningful enough to make a difference.”