Sze Chai Kwok, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke Kunshan, studies the neural bases of episodic memory, metacognition, and related higher cognitive processes
By DKU Staff
As a boy, Sze Chai Kwok would spend hours exploring the woods and beaches near his childhood home in Hong Kong’s Clear Water Bay, watching the various wildlife hunt, eat and fight. Later, as a Ph.D. student in the U.K., he’d stroll London’s cosmopolitan streets, observing with equal fascination the throng of commuters, traders and tourists.
“I enjoy observing behaviors, trying to figure out the logic, why we do what we do,” he said. “Scientists need to respect each living thing and treat uniqueness as a gift.”
Kwok’s deep-rooted interest in understanding the decisions and actions of humans and other species has inspired his work in cognitive neuroscience, which studies the biological aspects that underpin mental processes such as learning and memory.
As an associate professor at Duke Kunshan, Kwok teaches undergraduate courses in behavioral science, neuroscience, and psychology, and he supervises dozens of student research projects. He is also the principal investigator at the Kwok Lab, a cutting-edge facility in Shanghai that studies episodic memory and other neural processes in primates.
Kwok has led interdisciplinary projects supported by China’s Ministry of Education, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission. He’s also published more than 40 papers in influential journals including Neuron, eLife, the Journal of Neuroscience, and Nature Human Behaviour.
His work has produced insights into a range of brain-related disciplines – and he’s confident the biggest breakthroughs are still to come.
Even though it’s become common to see headlines about scientific studies that claim to show the neural mechanism behind a particular brain function, Kwok said that, in truth, neuroscientists are still struggling to come up with theories on how arrays of individual neurons relate complex behaviors, even in principle.
“Neuroscience is still waiting for its Newton,” he said, adding that with the advanced technology and skills available today, “now is a golden age for scientists in this field.”
Kwok enjoys a day out with his Shanghai research team
With this in mind, Kwok encourages all of his students to get involved in research as early as they can, even in their first year of university.
David Jiang ’23 was among Kwok’s first cohort of undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan. He was able to start his debut research project in his sophomore year thanks to extensive support from Kwok, who introduced him to leading researchers, databases, and other resources.
“Professor Kwok told us in our first class that he’s very active in academia, and he invited any student interested in doing research to talk with him,” Jiang said.
Angie Xie, a visiting undergraduate student from Duke University, worked as Kwok’s research assistant in 2020-21. Under his guidance, Xie secured a research grant from Duke’s Bass Connections program to study racial bias from the perspective of metacognition, which is the awareness of one’s own thought process.
When she was writing her proposal, Xie said Kwok always replied promptly to messages and questions about her project, even sometimes in the small hours of the morning.
“Finish your courses as early as possible and get started on research,” Kwok said, explaining what he tells all of his students. “It’s an undeniable fact that young people have more energy and are often more efficient.”
Optimism inspires solutions
Kwok completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong before obtaining a Ph.D. in experimental psychology at the University of Oxford in the U.K. After conducting postdoctoral research at the Santa Lucia Foundation in Rome, Italy, he returned to China in 2015 and joined the faculty at East China Normal University’s School of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences.
Soon after, he received funding to set up the Kwok Lab, which focuses on episodic memory – the memory of autobiographical events such as times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge. In particular, the lab looks at coding and abstraction of temporal information in memory, emphasis on the (re)constructive nature of memories, and introspection of recollection, or meta-memory.
Over the years, Kwok’s team has grown from just two researchers to more than 10, and he makes sure to recruit only those who are committed to the field of cognitive neuroscience.
An essential question he asks all his collaborators is, “How do you see the value of your research?” While some want to help patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, others simply enjoy academic exploration, Kwok said. For him, it’s all about the intellectual challenge.
His students and research assistants describe Kwok as optimistic, open-minded, hardworking and humorous
Meanwhile, staff at the lab say Kwok’s optimism, open-minded attitude and humor have inspired them to take on and overcome any number of challenges in their research.
“Professor Kwok doesn’t quit until he gets the results he’s looking for,” said Ph.D. student Yudian Cai, who has worked with Kwok for four years. “For example, if he’s convinced our data analysis will lead to something meaningful, he’ll tell me to keep working on it even after many rounds of failures. Many times, we eventually worked something out. His optimism always makes me believe good things will happen.”
Lei Wang, one of the first graduate students Kwok recruited after returning to China, said his mentor has a gift for seeing potential breakthroughs by adapting existing research.
For example, he said, after studies showed that rodents are able to reconstruct memories, Kwok wanted to know whether the same is true for rhesus macaques. The resulting experiment, in which monkeys performed a temporal-order judgement task after viewing a short naturalistic video clip, provided insights into the evolution of episodic memory in humans.
“It’s our destiny to do research together,” Kwok said. “These students make everything possible, and I’m greatly inspired by their diligence.”
Kwok said he sees every discovery, big or small, as a reason for celebration. However, he has never considered there being an ultimate objective to his work. “Why should there be?” he said.
He cited the Japanese mathematician Kiyoshi Oka (1901-78), who towards the end of his life remarked that the sheer volume of math knowledge available meant a person could spend his or her entire life learning it. To go beyond that, however, he said a person would need to be blessed with both genius and a long life.
Oka’s comment reveals both the sweet and sour of scientific research, said Kwok.
“Many products will be obsolete in a decade or even a few years, but research won’t. Eighty years from now, when I’m gone, our research findings will live on,” he said. “Just as I make discoveries or progress thanks to the work of researchers that came before, future generations will go further by building on my work.”
Read about Duke Kunshan’s interdisciplinary major in behavioral science, which offers tracks in psychology and neuroscience.
Find out more about the Kwok Lab. Visit the website.