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Curiosity and Teamwork — HKUMed Supervisors on the Traits They Seek in PhD Candidates

With applications open for HKUMed’s research postgraduate programmes, we sat down with three HKUMed academics to learn about the attributes they look for in potential MPhil or PhD candidates.

Dr Jasper Chan, Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology

Dr Jasper Chan is a graduate of The University of Hong Kong’s MBBS programme and joined his alma mater as a clinician-scientist in 2013 to develop new drugs and methods to diagnose and control emerging infectious diseases.

In January 2020, he and his team reported in The Lancet the world’s first familial cluster of COVID-19 patients outside Wuhan, thus confirming person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The team’s findings had a major impact on government policies and control strategies for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Borrowing from HKU’s motto, “Sapientia et Virtus”, Dr Chan said research postgraduate students must possess both the desire to do good and critical thinking.

“To be a good scientist, you need to work very hard. Everyone at HKU is very smart, so you have a lot of good companions who can help you grow. We’re looking for good people in terms of being honest and compassionate, with the desire to do something beneficial for mankind,” he said.

“We always emphasise the importance of complying with biosafety regulations to our students, because our team is always dealing with various pathogenic organisms such as SARS-CoV-2,” he said. “And we’re looking for people who are innovative, because for all emerging infectious diseases, you need to find new ways very rapidly to control the outbreak.”

Dr Jenny Lam, Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Pharmacy

Dr Jenny Lam is a pharmacist who received her training at the University of Nottingham before returning to Hong Kong in 2009 when HKUMed launched the Bachelor of Pharmacy programme.

Her research lab focuses on the delivery of therapeutic nucleic acids, antibodies, peptides, proteins vaccines and microbial agents to the airways.

Dr Lam said she welcomes applications from postgraduates who do not yet have research experience, as long as they display creativity and are willing to work as a team. Teamwork is a crucial element for Dr Lam as she believes collaboration helps solve problems and develop new ideas.

“Many students see a PhD as needing to finish a project to write a thesis, but it’s more of a learning process,” she said. “Not only do you need to do your own project but you also need to look at what others are doing because sometimes you may be inspired, even though it might be completely different to your own project.”

And this focus on teamwork within her lab reflects HKU’s broader culture of collaboration, which Dr Lam said allows her to work within the Medical Faculty and with other departments.

“One good thing about working at HKU is that you have expertise from many different areas, not only in this faculty, but I also have collaborators in the Department of Chemistry, in the Faculty of Engineering and of course, people in the clinical area in the Department of Microbiology,” she said.

Her lab also collaborates with researchers in the UK, Australia and Italy and joint PhD programmes with King’s College, London.

Dr Lam hopes to encourage more pharmacists to pursue research as their unique skill set makes them valuable members of a research team.

“I want to let them know that pharmacists are very important in a research team because they have the uniqueness of understanding of how a drug works in the body, understanding a patient’s needs, how to counsel them on how to take the medication. And they also work closely with doctors in deciding what sort of medicine is suitable for the patient.”

Dr Tommy Lam, Associate Professor in Division of Public Health Laboratory Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Dr Tommy Lam developed an interest in virology during high school and was fascinated by how a simple virus can invade and take over host cells using its genome codes injected.

This fascination propelled him to study bioinformatics — a field at the intersection of data science and biology — as an undergraduate at HKU and to pursue a PhD in molecular virology, studying evolution of influenza virus.

His research focuses on animal viruses and pathogens that might cross the barrier and jump to humans. After working in the US and the UK following his PhD, Dr Lam chose to return to HKUMed as the Faculty is at the frontline of the infectious disease research.

He believes the most important attributes for research postgraduate students are a passion for the subject and determination. Analytical skills come secondary to passion as Dr Lam said these can be taught.

However, he credits this new generation of students as being able to pick up new technologies quickly and said he looks for candidates that are able to critically analyse problems in search of a solution.

Dr Lam looks for students who have the curiosity and ability to show him how their interests align with his team’s, not someone who wants to simply recreate his work or be spoon-fed.

“If a student is passionate, they will explore the topics and expand hugely on what they are interested in,” he said.

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