Vol. IX No. 2 - Tuesday
January 12 - January 18, 2010

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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Toys for Thailand helps hill tribes kids

Physics plays a role in Chiang Mai


Toys for Thailand helps hill tribes kids


Physics plays a role in Chiang Mai

The Thailand Center for Excellence in Physics

By Shana Kongmun
In a city a where art, culture and music reign supreme, science and academics often get overlooked by the community at large. Chiang Mai University is the site of a unique program run by the erudite and urbane Thiraphat Vilaithong, PhD.. The Thailand Center for Excellence in Physics, also known as THEP.

Thiraphat Vilaithong, PhD. Professor Emeritus and Director of THEP.
Dr. Thirapat came to Chiang Mai as a young lecturer in 1968 and today, finds himself head of the THEP program. Abut 10 years ago the government set up 7 university graduate research centers in science and engineering. The goal, to produce qualified manpower in science and engineering and to strengthen research in applied sciences. “To drive technology you need knowledge, without a solid foundation in basic sciences, you cannot expect to make much progress in technology,” Dr Thirapat explained. HM King Bhumibol spoke to the United States Congress back in the 50’s, laying the foundation for the self sufficiency economy the doctor continued. HM the King explained that according to the teachings of Buddha, you must be self-reliant and that while the U.S. was a great help, the goal was to one day to progress technologically without being reliant on the United States for education and assistance.

One of the research stations currently perfecting hydrogen fuel cell technology.
THEP, set up 2 years ago, is the command center, the brain, of the research units. There are 24 research units in 12 different universities affiliated with THEP at Chiang Mai University with the goal to share knowledge, research and advance technologically. There are 3 main criteria for progress in THEP; the units need to make tangible progress; produce intelligent scientific research for publication nationally and internationally and finally the research should be in the interest of the nation. THEP’s research units focus on thin film technology, particle beam plasma, nanotechnology and computational and theoretical physics. Each of the units specializes in research in these areas and has a clearly defined goal.
THEP hopes to promote the study of pure science in Thai schools and increase the number of PhD graduates in Thailand, offer fellowships to graduate students and develop the facilities for post-graduate students. The organization also hopes to increase the cooperation between corporate research and scientific academic research. Dr. Thirapat believes that academic research can be used to work with industry in order to help industry more innovative and move away from the strictly manufacturing base and branch into new technologies.

Varian Ion implanter in the Physics Department at Chiang Mai University.
As THEP enters its second year Dr Thirapat feels that the first year was spent productively in enforcing accountability and transparency, organizing and interacting with the departments from the various universities. THEP sets goals for a certain number of students enrolled per year and a specific number of students who publish each year. The government restricted overseas training after the economic crash, but Dr Thirapat hopes to see that reinstated as the economy rebounds. He hopes to develop partnerships with scientific research organizations in the United States and other countries with a hope to send graduate students for increased exposure to new ideas, new methods and differing technologies.
He said that they have instituted what is called the “White Elephant Program” where 60 gifted high school students from around the nation are selected to attend special scientific programs and given scholarships for university in order to further their science studies. The students are not selected for this program but must apply and he feels that the system could do better in informing rural students as to their opportunities as well as provide them with equal opportunities for education. Dr. Thirapat feels that the current system handicaps not just the schools but the students as well. With everything centralized under the Ministry of Education schools are not allowed or able to bring in outside expertise in order to help educate their students, even when the expertise is available. Chiang Mai University is autonomous and as such, has been able to hire foreign experts to help the science and other departments advance. The Chiang Mai physics lab is the site of a Thailand built electron beam accelerator, as well as fuel cell technology, thin film research, and genetic modification of seeds. In fact, they have produced unique flower seeds as well as superior strains of rice with the varian ion implanter accelerating mutations that normal breeding methods could take generations to achieve.
Dr . Thirapat pointed out that while Thailand has the basic infrastructure in place for manufacturing, it lacks the innovation and ideas necessary for research and development (R & D). The problems with licensing also hold Thailand back from taking a place on the scientific world stage. But, he added, Thailand needs to build a base with an emphasis on R & D. “ I think that with appropriate support and good strategic planning we will be able to produce in the next 10 years, these things do not happen overnight.” He added that since politicians are responsible for the budgets, they also usually expect immediate results, they need to be convinced that certain research areas take longer and yet still need investment. “We, as scientists, must show that we are accountable for our research and yet also produce marketable products. Academics have to show the public and private sector that they can do good work with funding but the public and private sectors also need reassurance that scientists can produce.”
Finally, Dr. Thirapat stated that the issue facing physicists today are in solving the energy problem and that the physics community needs to look seriously into energy and climate issues. To that end, the Chiang Mai University Physics lab is creating hydrogen fuel cells and is working on further developing the technology to make it applicable to the world at large.

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