Collaborative and Eager for Diverse Skills — HKUMed Supervisors on the Traits They Seek in PhD Candidates
With applications now open for HKUMed’s research postgraduate programmes, we asked supervisors about what the Faculty can offer aspiring scientists and the attributes they look for in potential MPhil or PhD candidates.
Professor Leo Poon, Division of Public Health Laboratory Sciences, School of Public Health
Professor Leo Poon’s research focuses on the influenza virus and coronavirus. In 2003, he was involved in the discovery of a novel coronavirus as the virus behind Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
He encourages aspiring postgraduate students to step outside their comfort zones and get to know the culture in a laboratory before making a four-year commitment.
“My recommendation to students is to try to find an energetic group who can allow you to have dynamic discussions… A lab of a reasonable size allows you to get help not only from your supervisors but also from your colleagues.”
The infectious diseases expert also reminds students that they should not feel deterred by failure as these experiences help develop crucial problem-solving skills.
“The reality is you sometimes or even often don’t get the expected results from your experiments, which is good because you learn from it,” he said. “Sometimes you ask the wrong question, so you get the wrong answer. Getting these results can encourage you to reformulate your hypothesis or try to finetune your experimental models.”
Pointing to the great scientists at HKUMed and their connections with overseas institutions and researchers, Professor Poon said students can benefit from the Faculty’s extensive network.
“The good thing here is that we do have a good network so we can allow them to talk to other people and facilitate collaborations so that we can make an even bigger impact.”
Dr Esther Chan, Associate Professor, Department of Pharmacology and Pharmacy
Dr Esther Chan’s research examines the safety and effectiveness of medicines. She also researches how to apply big data to expand knowledge on the application of medicines.
She encourages students who are keen to make change for the better and a desire to examine issues deeply to apply for research postgraduate programmes, even if their research experience is limited.
“Many students who commence with us do not have a strong research background,” she said. “There are opportunities to train through coursework and through the development of research questions and undertaking the research.”
Dr Chan recommends prospective students speak to as many supervisors as possible during their search and reach out to current PhD students to learn about the team’s culture.
During their time at HKUMed, students benefit from a supportive and positive research culture, Dr Chan said, which encourages them to look beyond their immediate research settings.
“HKUMed is quick-paced with many unique opportunities as well as being uniquely placed for international collaborations and networking,” she said.
Dr Alan Wong, Assistant Professor, School of Biomedical Sciences
Dr Alan Wong’s laboratory focuses on developing and applying new technologies to understand complex biological systems as well as engineering genetic circuits for new biomedical and biotechnological solutions.
He is eager for research postgraduate students to develop multiple skill sets during their time in his lab to give them options once they graduate.
This goal is in part driven by his own experience. Dr Wong learnt the value of obtaining diverse skills after he completed his PhD in neuroscience and then switched his area of focus to bioengineering.
“The field is looking for people with different expertise,” he said. “Having one specialty is important but being flexible as well as reasonably diverse is also very important. Otherwise the opportunities will be very confined.”
Dr Wong supports this goal through maintaining a diversity of skill sets in his lab. Of the 15 people working in the lab, a third are experienced mentors with expertise in genome editing, protein engineering, DNA manipulation, high-throughput screening, cell and mouse models, and bioinformatics.
“For example, if a student is developing a project more related to genome editing, they will have a mentor who can guide them closely,” Dr Wong said. “Such that the research postgraduate students will be able to pick up techniques faster and more easily, and also develop new projects eventually.”
He encourages students to learn from colleagues outside the lab through collaborations within the Faculty or across the University, such as with the Faculty of Engineering.
HKUMed’s collaborative nature is also beneficial when it comes to the facilities and equipment needed for research, Dr Wong said. Core facilities support a variety of research, which is particularly important for a diverse lab that needs varied equipment to facilitate its work.
Dr Yen Hui-Ling, Associate Professor, School of Public Health
Dr Yen Hui-Ling’s research focuses on the mechanisms of influenza transmission among and between different reservoirs.
In her role as a supervisor, she looks for students who are curious and encourages candidates to actively seek out different research fields during their undergraduate degrees to identify their interests.
“A good researcher also needs to keep a balance of being critical — having an analytical mind — and being open-minded, such as acceptance of different hypotheses and being able to work in a team,” she explained.
Alongside these traits, Dr Yen emphasises the importance of communication when building a relationship with her students.
“Each of my students is unique, and I need to find different ways to communicate and encourage them,” she said. “I feel that timely communication and building trust are important for the supervisor-mentee relationship. ”