Learned to define my research independently

Professor Yun Chien Cheng on his doctorate in Germany


Yun Chien Cheng took part in the PhD programme at the German Cancer Research Center Heidelberg (DKFZ) and TU Darmstadt. Today, he is working as an associate Professor for Medical Engineering at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.

Professor Yun Chien Cheng

Prof. Cheng, please tell us about your current work and research.

I am currently living in Hsinchu, Taiwan, and I am working at National Chiao Tung University as an associate Professor. My research topic is Medical Engineering, including using plasma (ionized gas) to treat cancer or wounds, and utilising Deep Learning for medical image analysis.

What is the special benefit of Deep Learning?

I use Deep Learning to assist lung cancer cytology and for early detection of pulmonary embolism from CT images.

Darmstadt was one step in your career, why did you choose TU Darmstadt for your studies?

Already as an undergraduate student, I had wanted to study in Germany for my PhD degree. After having my Master’s degree, I applied to PhD programmes in Germany and got a PhD student position at the German Cancer Research Center Heidelberg (DKFZ). I was an engineering student, so my supervisor sent me to TU Darmstadt, which is well known for engineering and for engineering support. I think it is a very good combination for biomedical engineering studies, since TU Darmstadt is very strong in engineering, and Heidelberg is very strong in biomedicine.

Where did you study before?

I was an Electrical Engineering student at National Taiwan University and lived in Taipei, Taiwan.

How did you experience your time in Darmstadt?

Most Germans were very friendly. For example, when I entered an elevator, the stranger inside would say hello and press the right floor button for you, even if we did not know each other. The cars always waited for the pedestrians. I had the feeling that most Germans have a steady and peaceful mind. I also attended my lab mate’s wedding ceremony at Rosenhöhe, played “Fußball” [football] in the field or “Tischkicker” [tabletop football] with my lab mates. All these experiences are unforgettable to me, but of course there were also some problems because of language barriers or bureaucracy.

What was different from your home university or your home country?

The education philosophy is quite different. I finished my Master’s degree in Taiwan and pursued a “Dr. Ing.” degree at TU Darmstadt and DKFZ. My Master supervisor defined my Master research topic and tasks clearly and in detail. I had a meeting with him and finished the tasks he gave me step by step till Master defense.

What else was different from your home university or your home country?

When I joined the lab at TU Darmstadt, things were totally different. I could not discuss with my “Doktorvater” [mentoring professor for a PhD student] unless I made an appointment with his secretary one month in advance. Nobody told me what I should do most of the time. At the beginning, I had a very hard time and did not know why my German lab mates were all doing so well. Gradually, I learned that I was supposed to plan and define my research independently. If I had questions, I should read papers and actively discuss with anyone who could possibly help. When I started, I found that all my lab mates were ready to help and discuss their work with each other. Adjusting to that difference was very tough for me at first, but proved an important experience that has formed my research attitude.

What did TU Darmstadt mean for your further career?

TU Darmstadt has a very good engineering reputation which helped me when I was looking for jobs. In addition to the engineering knowledge, I also learned some important things at TU Darmstadt. From my “Doktorvater”, Prof. Edgar Doersam, I learned that establishing an environment where everybody is willing to help is very important for engineering researchers. My “Doktorvater” respected each PhD student and treated them as colleagues. I also learned that the teacher should be patient with his students and wait to see them grow. Hence, when I established the research group in Taiwan, I also tried to treat my students like that.

Are you still in contact with former students or teachers of TU Darmstadt?

Yes, I am still in contact with Nan Xu. He was my best friend at TU Darmstadt. When I was very new in Darmstadt, I met him at the student dorm. He supported me in several aspects and helped me to get used to the brand new life. Although I am now in Taiwan and he is in Stuttgart, we still chat with each other online sometimes. I am also in contact with Prof. Edgar Doersam. I returned to TU Darmstadt twice to visit Nan Xu and Prof. Doersam after having returned to Taiwan. Prof. Doersam has also visited me at my university when he came to Taiwan. I really regret having lost contact with most of my lab mates in Darmstadt. But from Prof. Doersam I happily heard that most of them got very good jobs and have their own good life going on.

Interview: Astrid Ludwig