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Perseverance, creativity traits education professor fosters in students

Ming Ming Chiu

His adventures during a recent trip to China illustrate Ming Ming Chiu's optimism and creativity. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published April 4, 2013

Count him among the most unlikely candidates to be one of the most interesting people you know. He’s the statistician-savvy UB mathematics education professor with the boyish face and eternally modulated voice, who is, somehow, undeniably drawn to the wilder side, at least for an academic.

Ming Ming Chiu, a professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction, Graduate School of Education, appreciates excitement. And nothing illustrates Ming’s adventurous spirit more than his most recent trip to give a keynote speech in Shanghai, China.

For those not familiar with Ming, it’s an introductory story about his affinity to channel confidence and perseverance—or at least not fold completely—in the face of struggle or what seems like the jaws of failure.

For those looking for a deeper lesson, how about this: The Adventures of Ming show how slips and snags along the way do not necessary determine an outcome. A good-natured spirit and ability to call an audible can carry the day. And how sometimes, a little courage and undying optimism can bring results that seem—in the heat of battle and the moment—unexpected.

Switch back to Ming’s most recent academic presentation at East China Normal University last October. This story started at the Buffalo airport when, after a hectic start of the academic year juggling research and administrative duties, Ming relished his return to China for his speech. He packed too quickly and found once he got to the airport that he had forgotten his passport. Doing the arithmetic of driving home and returning to the terminal, Ming figured he would have a few minutes to get to his gate. Not a big window, but enough.

He rushed home, then drove back to the airport—15 minutes each way—then parked again. Once back in the terminal, Ming spotted the shortest security line, passed through and then heard the final boarding call for his flight—taking off five minutes earlier than he expected. Thankful for suitcases with wheels, Ming sprinted from one end of the airport to the other. He arrived at the gate with passengers still boarding.

And he smiled.

It’s the same smile he displays telling this story while eating lunch at one of his favorite campus-area casual Indian restaurants. Ming obviously relishes telling the story, taking his guest through it, step by step. But this one doesn’t end at the boarding gate. It’s a Ming Tale that crosses international boundaries and continues for days.

After stopping in South Korea to give a speech, Ming realized his next mistake: He had not applied for a visa to give him permission to enter China. The next 48 hours resembled a Bond movie, with some Pink Panther/higher education version mixed in. There were referrals through his South Korean social network, a friend of a friend bike-messengering his passport into the hands of the consul general, flying to Hong Kong for a same-day China visa, cajoling Foreign Ministry officials to grant him a visa and finally, using computer records of a previous visit to China, getting the visa that would allow him into the country to deliver his keynote speech.

This pattern becomes more intriguing for those who know Ming casually as the mild-mannered education professor who recently became associate chair of his department. Ming, 46, has the boyishness enthusiasm of an undergraduate. His research and publication record reflects an iconoclastic approach that often uses complex mathematical concepts in original ways. His video of “Brain Games”—simple math games parents can play with their children at the dinner table—became somewhat of an Internet sensation with more than 5,000 hits from as far away as Australia. Stories on Ming’s work have appeared in the press in South America, Spain, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.

So if anyone is looking for UB faculty members who mix their accomplishments with elements of optimism and adventure, that list starts with Ming.

“Confidence and perseverance in the face of failure are only stepping stones for learning and creativity,” says Ming. “These qualities produce alternate options that can drive success.”

The notable link in Ming’s stories is its genetic lineage. His travails and creative strategies, he says, were minor compared to his father’s arrival in Hong Kong in the 1960s as a teenager without any skills.

After having little success getting unskilled jobs, Ming’s father started applying for skilled ones in Hong Kong’s construction yards with unparalleled confidence and gumption. He saw dozens of postings for crane operators and set up several interviews each day.

“Of course, he didn’t know how to operate a crane, so he spent each interview exploring the crane controls until the interviewer recognized his crane incompetence and threw him out of the construction yard,” Ming recalls.

After failing over two dozen interviews, Ming says, an inattentive “or desperate” foreman hired his father. After signing the necessary papers, Ming’s father went back to his crane to learn the controls the same day.

“He stayed at the construction yard late into the night, practicing his control of the crane until he was satisfied that he wouldn’t kill anyone the next day,” Ming says. “Three years later, he successfully repeated his learning-by-interviewing strategy to become a construction foreman.”

Ming is one of the fortunate ones who can see a common fabric—or something he might consider a mathematical logic—to his life.

Ming calls it “perseverance and creativity,” the creativity being the willingness to take chances and put himself out on the edge, sometimes literally. In the past five years, Ming has crisscrossed the Eastern and Western hemispheres, not always standing on solid ground. He’s a mathematician, remember, so he has the dates for every one:

  • Hawaii, Jan. 14, 2012: In the Pacific Ocean, west of Kaua’i, Ming watched several sharks circle his cage in the fiery light of dawn.
  • Japan, July 16, 2010: Ming met his business school co-author while singing David Bowie songs at a Tokyo karaoke bar around midnight.
  • South Korea, Dec. 19, 2011: Dining at a friend’s home in Seoul, his mouth dueled with live octopus arms, eventually “dis-arming” their suckers with sesame oil.
  • Hong Kong, Aug. 11, 2008: Searching for pirate treasure before high tide, Ming slid down into a pitch black cave on a remote island off the coast of Hong Kong.
  • Vancouver, Canada, April 14, 2012: He found the best sushi he has ever tasted in a rundown restaurant that literally could be described as a hole in the wall.
  • Singapore, June 8, 2009:  Separated by a thin wire barely visible in the moonlight, a Bengal tiger and Ming stood motionless, fascinated by one another’s eyes.

This perseverance and creativity are traits Ming fosters in his students. His research shows these same traits, blending the principles of mathematics he understands so well with unusual applications.

For example, Ming developed a statistical method that can show whether record companies were bribing radio stations to air specific songs.

He devised the term “micro-creativity” to describe a way to talk through problems to find creative solutions.

He urged parents to use family chat times to incorporate mathematical principles into world events that would help children feel more comfortable with reasoning and math skills that will help them in school.

And Ming’s kitchen table-designed Brain Games recently logged its 6000th hit.

Mindful of this perseverance and creativity, Ming encourages his students to develop these orientations. Like Ming, many of his students have traveled far, taking jobs outside their training and in languages they do not fully understand.  Originally a local Hong Kong tour guide, Jessica Chan became a project evaluator at the United Nations. Trained as a computer scientist in Beijing, Gaowei Chen now analyzes classroom conversations in Pittsburgh. Initially an elementary school teacher in Hong Kong, Duncan Lam is now a statistician in New Brunswick.

But back to Ming’s China speech, the one that almost never took place because of logistic complications. Listening to the first speaker alternate with his translator, Ming realized that he had to cut his talk in half. During the question-and-answer period, he saw that the audience consisted mainly of teachers, not statisticians. So besides shortening the speech, he deleted as many formulas as possible.

But the speech did need at least one formula to make sense, so as soon as he presented his only formula, his audience started to stir, apparently losing interest and talking among themselves. Loudly, he recalls. Hundreds of them. Ming was livid. After struggling mightily to enter Shanghai and rewriting his speech, he couldn’t believe his audience could be so rude. Masking his fury with his smile, he finished his speech, answered a couple of questions and left the building, with his interpreter chasing after him.

After calming down, he returned to have lunch with the organizers, who politely praised his speech. And then, something unexpected happened. When he returned to the conference, several professors and teachers asked to take photos with him. Very odd, he thought, especially as audience members weren’t taking photos with the other keynote speaker. He was even more surprised that they mentioned specific aspects of his statistics talk that were useful in their classrooms. 

At that point, he realized that he had misread the situation. First, his audience clearly understood his formula and his talk. Second, they were buzzing in the middle of his speech because they were excited about the possible classroom implications. Third, the organizers weren’t just being polite—they really liked his talk.

It was just another day in the life of Ming Ming Chiu.

READER COMMENT

Nice job, Charles. Ming is a great guy.

Gerry Rising