Behind the Research – Stories of Three Award-winning Ph.D. Students in the 28th Symposium on Chemistry Postgraduate Research in Hong Kong and Essential Research Culture in Department of Chemistry

Background of the Symposium

Established in 1994, Symposium on Chemistry Postgraduate Research in Hong Kong has become a major annual event for all Chemistry postgraduate students and faculty members as well as some industrial partners to present the most recent progress in chemistry research. The objective of the proposed symposium is to discuss the most recent advancement in postgraduate research in chemistry, exchange research ideas, and foster collaborations and networking. It offers postgraduate students an invaluable opportunity to interact with the keynote speaker and local faculty members and students in person.

This year, the 28th Symposium on Chemistry Postgraduate Research in Hong Kong hosted by Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) was successfully held on 6 November 2021. This symposium consisted of a Keynote Lecture delivered by Professor Kai JOHNSSON (Max Planck Institute for Medical Research), an oral session presented by representative postgraduate students from six universities and an online poster session by 185 postgraduate students. A total of 696 participants attended the symposium.

Out of the twelve awards, three Ph.D. students from HKBU were honoured to receive the awards as listed below:

CHEN YunzhouAlkylperoxocobalt(III) Complexes Catalyzed Aerobic Peroxidation of Alkanes and Alkenes
  1. The Oral Presentation Award, First Prize
  2. The Poster Presentation Award - Physical and Inorganic Chemistry
CHAN Chiu Wing"Barcode" Cell Biosensor for Rapid, Convenient and Resource-independent Antimicrobial Susceptibility TestingThe Poster Presentation Award - Analytical, Environmental, and Biochemistry
ZENG TingComprehensive Characterization of Environmental Cadmium Toxicity on Rice, Mouse and Human Urine by Mass Spectrometry-Based Omics AnalysisThe Poster Presentation Award - Analytical, Environmental, and Biochemistry

Stories of the Three Awardees

Recounting the beginning of their research journey, the three awardees shared the same thought that their supervisors inspired them to work on their research topics. Chiu Wing joined the research group of her supervisor, Dr REN Kangning, Associate Professor of Department of Chemistry, to work on microfluidics since her undergraduate studies in the Department of Chemistry. She has been paying attention to antimicrobial resistance (AMR), one of the biggest threats to the modern society which is primarily caused by the misuse or overuse of antibiotics. However, the current antimicrobial susceptibility testing (AST), a strategy to determine which antibiotics can inhibit the growth of a certain type of bacteria, is slow and costly. Therefore, she and her research groupmates came up with an idea of applying the capability of microfluidics to address this issue.

Another awardee, Ting, is also concerned about human health and is inspired by her supervisor, Professor CAI Zongwei, Founding Kwok Yat Wai Endowed Chair of Environmental and Biological Analysis and Chair Professor of Department of Chemistry, to work on the field of environmental pollution and human health and particularly investigate Cadmium, a toxic environmental pollutant which may be absorbed and accumulated in rice grain and poses serious threats to human health. Ting learned that a severe human-poisoning event, known as Itai-itai disease, was reported in Japan in the 1960s and rice tainted with Cadmium was discovered in Southern China in 2013. Therefore, she wanted to investigate Cadmium by using mass spectrometry-based omics analysis which is powerful for unravelling the Cadmium-induced changes in biological samples due to its rapid technological development and widely used databases.

Yunzhou’s research focuses more about fundamental study in bioinorganic chemistry. It is mainly based on part of the research of her supervisor, Dr MAN Wai Lun, Assistant Professor of Department of Chemistry, who has been working on the synthesis and reactivity of high valent metal complexes for many years. Dr MAN and Yunzhou discovered the new cobalt-alkylperoxo complex and found it able to undergo C-H bond activation. This finding aroused their interest, as the method of activating chemical inactive alkane is useful. They further studied the structure, reactivity and mechanism in the research project.

During their research journey, the three awardees encountered various difficulties. Chiu Wing’s research project is highly interdisciplinary that involves chemistry, cell biology, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, and the most unfamiliar area – mobile app development. ‘While developing the whole AST system, we faced the challenge of developing a mobile application as we were not familiar with this field. I am very grateful that my supervisor, Dr REN, led our team to collaborate closely with the professors in the Department of Computer Science and eventually solved the problem together. Without those help and professional advice, our project would not have succeeded,’ Chiu Wing expressed her deep gratitude.

'I had no experience in planting rice. Clarification of the potential biomarkers and metabolic pathways in different rice varieties under Cadmium stress could facilitate the understanding of characteristics in low-Cadmium-accumulating rice and provide a helpful strategy to breed it,' Ting mentioned. She did not want her lack of experience hindering the research progress and thus she sought assistance from her supervisor. Professor CAI gave her a chance to earn valuable experience in Hunan Rice Research Institute, which was beneficial to her research project. Similar to Ting’s case, Yunzhou was a beginner in the mechanistic studies and she had to learn how to conduct research with some new instruments. She recalled the hard time when doing 18O-labeled experiments. 18O2 was found very costly and hard to purchase. She failed to electrolyze 18O-water as an alternative. Eventually, they oxidized water with metal catalyst and strong oxidants by undergoing many times of trial and error.

With their successful research outcome, the three awardees proudly presented their ideas in the poster presentation. They had different ways of preparing their presentation well. ‘I attended some related conferences and took other people’s posters as references,’ Ting said. ‘For me, I presented my research project as a story in the poster, showing the extract from research background, reason to results, Chiu Wing mentioned. ‘This year the posters were presented online with short videos. During the preparation, I considered how to improve the readers’ online experience and how to guide my readers to know more about my work. But most importantly, I sought advice from my supervisor,’ Yunzhou shared.

Apart from the poster presentation, Yunzhou was honoured to be the University representative to join the oral presentation session. ‘My supervisor went through the presentation slides with me and discussed how to tell the audience a story in minutes in a logical way. Since most of the audience with Chemistry background were not in the same field as mine, I had to simplify my research details and make the contents easy to be understood,’ Yunzhou added.

When it comes to the way of presenting the research ideas in a one-page poster precisely and concisely, the three awardees are happy to share some tips with the fellow schoolmates:

✓ Give figures and tables
✓ Use reader-friendly font size
✓ Adopt proper design on the type setting
✓ Leave some clues for further studies

Essential Research Culture in Department of Chemistry

Dr REN Kangning, also one of the institutional representatives for the symposium, is delighted to share what makes the three shone in the symposium. ‘Apart from having lessons and doing experiments, our research postgraduate students have been provided with many opportunities to enhance their communication and presentation skills, and to nurture them to be independent researchers,’

‘Upon admission, the students are required to take a qualifying exam to ensure their academic preparation. When they become more senior, they will be invited to join a periodic oral presentation to introduce their own research work and at the same time learn from their peers. They also need to take turns to serve as moderators to coordinate presentation discussions and arrangements. More specifically, colleagues from the Language Centre are also invited to provide useful tips and advice to students on essential skills for oral presentation,’ Dr REN said.

‘Hosted by our Faculty members, a series of informal forums are also arranged annually for both undergraduate and postgraduate students to stimulate their research interest. The members would introduce their research work in layman’s terms, with an aim to broaden students’ horizons and spark their curiosity to the research areas new to them. In fact, this eye-opening experience has been attracting a certain number of high-quality undergraduate students of the Department to embark on their M.Phil./Ph.D. journey. Recently, the forums have even been strengthened with a ‘Tea Gathering’ series so as to create a more relaxed atmosphere for in-depth exchange of ideas among the members and the students on those topics discussed in the main forums,’

‘I would say the Symposium on Chemistry Postgraduate Research in Hong Kong is an opportunity to evaluate the annual performance of our research students. Their overall performance has been scaling new heights.’ Dr REN believes that the all-rounded training and positive research culture established by the Department is the students’ key to success in the symposium.

Please click here for more details of the Symposium.

From HKBU Science Gateways