Scholar Spotlight - Jieran Sun

Laidlaw Scholar Jieran Sun on recovering rare books and medieval manuscripts, and clearing your emotional rent.
Scholar Spotlight - Jieran Sun
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Jieran Sun, an HKU Laidlaw Scholar and Medicine & Health Subject Co-Lead, on recovering rare books and medieval manuscripts, and clearing your emotional rent.

The conservation of rare books and medieval manuscripts has long been a challenge for library studies. With their histories traced back to centuries ago, those carriers of knowledge have experienced peculiar and dramatic lives of being transferred, stolen, gone undercover, and eventually on bookshelves. They went through floods, fires, and even several wars. Almost inevitably, the condition of those manuscripts and books deteriorates over time. And it is especially the case for UCL Special Collectionsone of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives, and rare books in the UK. 

With the blessing of imaging technologies, I was able to digitalize and recover the missing information from those manuscripts. The information revealed in the manuscripts has both conservational value and practical impacts. For instance, one of the study objects was a flooded deed for UCL's Main Campus that is still legally effective. With its inscription recovered, we can better define the boundary of the UCL Main Campus. During my Laidlaw research, I studied a set of 28 objects and developed case-based integrated imaging solutions. With detailed documentation of my logistics and imaging parameters, I hope to set up an exemplary pipeline for conservation and digitalization of a general population of artistic works.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

The journey of my research in heritage imaging started with an interest and developed into a passion. During my freshmen year at college, I was infused with interests in various medical imaging techniques. With explorations on photonics and flow cytometry, I started to develop a general curiosity in imaging technologies and wish to explore their impacts on other areas.

Working with heritage conservation professionals on Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

With its compelling nature of imaging application on historical documents, the project almost immediately caught my attention. It allowed me to understand the obscure and intricate expression of art from the lens of technology. Through the penetrating wavelengths and blinking lights, those medieval manuscripts revealed what time has stamped on them. The texture of history and length of time becomes tangible and visible in the matrixes. And the connection I felt during the research sustained my passion in this field even after the research, leading to my participation in several digitalization projects in the libraries in Hong Kong.

What is the most memorable moment from your Laidlaw scholarship experience? 

During my six months in London, I attended a conference for heritage conservation. It was my first time at a national conference, and I was impressed by the passion people expressed during their presentations. In the later session, I talked to several people interested in heritage imaging and offered insights from my experiences. Those sparking moments allow me to realize the power of professional enthusiasm in breaking boundaries and connecting people for the greater good. It’s enlightening to see how practically strangers can bond and develop mutual trust merely through shared vision and interests. And not to exaggerate the seemingly mundane practice of conference conversations, I simply found it affirming to recognize the existence of a striving community in a similar field of interests. 

What is the biggest challenge you came across in your research and leadership journeys, and what did you learn from it? 

As a medical engineering student, my projects are sometimes interdisciplinary. In my recent project on ultrasound-induced nano-drug-carrier, I found myself stagnated with a critical technical challenge under limited guidance from my medical supervisor due to the system's engineering nature. Paddling through the overwhelming pressure to eventually overcome the challenge, here are a couple of lessons I learned the hard way:

  • Clear your emotional rent. It is okay to feel frustrated by challenges; however, intense emotional fluctuation can lead to rapid burnout and lower overall efficiency. My takeaway from the journey is to channel emotions through regular exercises and contemplative practices and calmly cope with the issue;
  • There is no shame in asking for help. Suggestions and help from experts can significantly accelerate the process. People are generally willing to advise in their field of interest if you ask properly.

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

Unlike other research fellowships, Laidlaw has a comprehensive ecosystem consisting of research support, leadership development, and a research-based community. In retrospect, the programme's well-rounded and inclusive nature has enhanced my definition of Laidlaw Scholars from a symbolic reference as scholarship recipients to self-perpetuating lifetime learners. And the most valuable concepts Laidlaw has taught me are learner mindset, effective altruism, and the impact of thoughts.

Which particular leaders inspire you the most and why?

I find myself inspired by people for their expertise from time to time. Yet, I lack the exposure and knowledge to find a role model that ticks every inspiration checklist entry. Particularly, I found Prof. Robert Langer's reflections and thoughts on research and mentorship profoundly inspiring. Moreover, personally, the controversial yet consistent singular characters of Christopher Hitchens remind me regularly of the intricate process of opinionation.

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

The pandemic has taught me many lessons, and one of them is the difficulty of making things happen as planned. As a student, I can’t help but notice the many sufferings and contradictions around the world, and it takes the collective effort of our generation to resolve. What I wish to contribute is the accessibility of medical treatment and diagnosis. The future I envision from my striving is that more people with disadvantaged backgrounds can receive treatments because of the technologies we developed. And hopefully, our work can inspire more people to follow on this mission.

Quick-fire Questions

📺 Film recommendation: Judas and the Black Messiah and J'ai perdu mon corps

Judas and the Black Messiah Reviews - Metacritic     

🎵 My quarantine anthem: The album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie

📚 My top book recommendation: Credit and Blame by Charles Tilly; At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

Credit and Blame: Tilly, Charles: 9780691135786: Books     At Swim-two-birds

🎧 Podcast obsession: 99% Invisible and Brave New Planet

99% Invisible - Wikipedia       Brave New Planet – Podcast – Podtail

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Drinking with my friends at the pier.


Jieran is the Medicine & Health Subject Co-Lead, along with University of Toronto Laidlaw Scholar Brandon Yu. Join the Medicine & Health community to connect with fellow Scholars and participate in journal clubs, productivity deep dives, bi-monthly learnings.

🔦 Discover more Scholar Spotlights: 

  • Brandon Yu (University of Toronto) on his research "The effects of N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) on B-cell activation" and launching his startup, iAscend.
  • Gráinne Sexton (Trinity College Dublin) on her research "'Tear down this wall’: Borders and Boundaries in the Native American Literature of Leslie Marmon Silko" and the importance of leadership that is grounded in humility and integrity. 
  • Lorenzo Molinari (UCL) on advancing learning tools and practices for autistic adolescents, breaking stigmas, and calling for change.
  • Collins Mokua (Columbia) on mental health in Kenya, how he is enacting ethical leadership in real life, and building an equitable, sustainable, and just future.
  • Emma Franck-Gwinnell (Durham University) on making businesses take action against modern slavery, and co-leading the Laidlaw Alumni Society.

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Go to the profile of Brandon Yu
over 1 year ago

Awesome story Jieran! Truly a privilege to be able to get to know you and work with you :)