Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Discover 'Hotspots' of Three-layered Alternatively Rotating Circulation in South China Sea

(This article was originally published on EurekAlert! on June 17, 2022)

 

A research team led by Prof. GAN Jianping, director of the Center for Ocean Research Hong Kong and Macau (CORE) at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), carried out field observations and conducted numerical simulations in the South China Sea (SCS) recently and revealed the never-before-seen characteristics of the three-dimensional ocean motion in the SCS through geophysical fluid dynamic theory. The complex ocean circulation system controls the energy conversion and water mass transport in the SCS, subsequently affects the biogeochemical processes, carbon budget, marine ecological environment health, regional climate change, and the sustainable economic and social development in surrounding countries and regions, which accounts for about 22% of the world's population. Studies on the SCS circulation and dynamics are regarded as the foundation and epitome of understanding the SCS. 

In the past few decades, there has been growing global attention to ocean circulation research in the SCS. However, scientific understanding of the three-dimensional water movement in this region is still very limited, ambiguous, and sometimes even misunderstood. This is caused by the lack of observations, reliable numerical model, and the knowledge of the complicated physical processes in the SCS circulation.

Until recently, based on observations, numerical simulations, and geophysical fluid dynamics reasoning, a research team led by Prof. Gan, who is also Chair Professor at HKUST’s Department of Ocean Science and Department of Mathematics, validated that the SCS rotating circulation has a three-layered structure, where currents rotate counterclockwise, clockwise and clockwise in the upper, middle and bottom layers, respectively. The study also found that the three-layered rotating circulations are composed of the dynamically active ‘hotspots’ of intensified currents along the steep continental slope surrounding the deep basin, instead of an orderly structure in the entire region as previously conceived. Slope currents are mainly controlled by the combination effects of monsoon, Kuroshio intrusion, and the unique topography, and are constantly adjusted and regulated by the multiscale oceanic processes. The study demonstrated the three-dimensional structure and physical mechanism of the SCS circulation for the first time, and clarified previous misunderstanding of the water mass motion in this region. Based on these findings, Prof. Gan's team created the WavyOcean, a 3D simulation and visualization system for ocean circulation and biogeochemical processes in the SCS, which is validated and constrained by both observations and dynamics reasoning.

Prof. Gan said, "Because of  failure in capturing the dynamic 'hotspot' in the marginal sea, almost all global models cannot accurately simulate the three-layer circulation structure and related physics in the South China Sea, even with the same spatial and temporal resolution. Therefore, compared with the open ocean, our understanding and simulation of the global marginal sea circulations, forced by multiple factors such as seafloor topography, water exchange through straits, and multi-scale dynamic processes, is more challenging than expected.”

"Observation is essential to ocean research. However, due to the strict spatial and temporal limitations of in-situ observations, it’s very difficult to understand the structure of ocean currents, especially for theoretical analysis of circulation dynamics. Numerical experiments or simulated 'observations' are crucial to ocean research, and an increasing amount of novel discoveries in ocean is now relying on numerical model that is rigorously validated by observations and geodynamic theory," he added. As an expert in computational geophysical fluid dynamics, Prof. Gan believes that numerical simulation is not a coding game of mere input and output, but rather a process of constructing an "exquisite" scientific numerical experiment and observation. In addition to simulating and forecasting the real ocean, numerical ocean modeling is a major scientific tool for understanding ocean processes and phenomena and assisting in exploring the unknowns.

The research results were recently published in Nature Communications by the team led by Prof. Gan, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Macau, and Southern University of Science and Technology. The research was co-funded by the CORE, the Hong Kong RGC and the National Natural Science Foundation of China. The CORE is jointly established by Qingdao National Science and Technology Laboratory and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Demonstrate Near-non-invasive In-vivo Imaging in Mouse Cortex at an Unprecedented Depth

(This article was originally published on EurekAlert! on June 13, 2022)

 

A research team from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has demonstrated for the first time in-vivo imaging of fine neuronal structures in mouse cortex through the intact skull at an unprecedented depth of 750 µm below pia, making high-resolution microscopy in cortex near non-invasive and measurably facilitating the study of the living brain.

The direct and non-invasive visualization of neurons, glia, and microvasculature in the brain in vivo is critical for enhancing our understanding of how the brain functions.  Over recent decades, great effort has been focused on developing novel techniques for in vivo imaging of the intact brain. However, none of the prevalent technologies, including ultrasound imaging (sonography), positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), provides sufficient spatial resolution to visualize biological structures at the subcellular level. 

While optical microscopy such as three-photon microscopy (3PM) can provide structural and functional information in living specimens at high spatiotemporal resolution, optical aberration and scattering occur as light travels through and interacts with inhomogeneous biological tissues, fundamentally limiting the performance of optical microscopy in both resolution and depth.

Although adaptive optics (AO) is a possible solution to correct for the aberration and restore the resolution of in vivo optical microscopy, it is not without shortcomings: the guide star signal for the conventional wavefront sensing fades away quickly when imaging depth increases. 

Now, co-led by Prof. QU Jianan, professor in Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering, and Prof. Nancy IP, chair professor in Division of Life Science, an HKUST research team developed a microscope that combines 3PM with two forms of AO, demonstrating fast measurements and the correction of both low-order and high-order aberrations in tissue at great depth. 

The technology makes use of two AO techniques: direct focus sensing with phase-sensitive detection and conjugate adaptive optics (CAO) with remote focusing.  The guide star signal is coded and then decoded in the aberration measurement to achieve AO correction of aberrations.  These enable the accurate measurement of the aberrant electric-field point-spread function of a laser in tissue and the fast correction of the aberration over a large imaging volume in the brain.

The team validated the imaging performance of the AO-3PM system using a wavelength of 1300 nm, imaging through intact skull both in vivo and on in vitro preparations.  The results showed that AO-3PM achieved high spatial resolution with a drastically improved fluorescence signal over a large depth, and high-resolution in vivo structural and functional imaging of mouse cortices through the intact skull up to 750 µm below the pia mater.  

Further, by using a pupil AO-3PM, the team achieved high-resolution imaging of subcortical structures up to 1.1 mm below the pia mater within the intact brain.  Taking advantage of the tight focus provided by their unique AO technique, the team went on to demonstrate the capability of AO-3PM to guide precise laser microsurgery and investigate post-operative microglial dynamics in the cortex through the intact skull. 

“It is absolutely fun to exploit the marriage of electronics and optics to bring a new tool for experimental biology,” Prof. Qu said. “Overall, our results demonstrate that AO-3PM technology holds great potential to advance in vivo imaging techniques and facilitate study of living brain.”

“It is truly remarkable what this state-of-the-art AO-3PM system can achieve,” Prof. Ip explained, “the high performance and unparalleled accuracy of this advanced deep-brain imaging technology will substantially widen our understanding of living brain with optimal physiological representation.”  

The research findings were recently published in Nature Biotechnology.

Community and Sustainability |
Giving Used Books a Second Life

Bookcrossing has grown into a global phenomenon in the past decade, but the idea still hasn’t taken off in Hong Kong. A team of HKUST alumni are determined to build a local reading culture by releasing second-hand books into the wild, with the help of an app they designed.

Book circulation was stagnant with the traditional way of bookcrossing. Thousands of books ended up sitting on our shelves.

Danny CHEUNG (BSc Chem 2002) and Damon FAN (BBA Mark & MGTO 2003) established a bookcrossing club in Tsuen Wan in 2020 for book lovers to share used books, but responses were lukewarm. “We received thousands of books in the form of donations but only a few hundreds were picked up. But as we only had one location, it was difficult for us to give out these books efficiently. We were taking in too many books with too few ways to find takers for them! Simply put, the operation was not sustainable,” they say.

An automated bookcrossing kiosk

Determined to boost circulation, the duo co-founded Onepile with the idea of digitalizing the bookcrossing process, transforming the traditional book exchange practice into a sustainable social enterprise.

“I contacted a fellow HKUST graduate working in the software industry to write a web-based app which would allow donors and users to input and view information of the books online. The web-based app, combined with a customized book-vending machine, would then become an automated bookcrossing kiosk,” says Danny.

Users need to sign up for the app before they can donate or reserve a book. Donors can quickly upload information of their books simply by scanning their ISBN number in the back. All books are displayed on the app for users to reserve. After a reservation is made, a QR code will be sent to the user for picking up the book from the machine.

“If a book is not picked up within 48 hours, it will be released back to the pool to expedite circulation,” says Damon. The kiosk also provides quick UV sanitizing on books—fitting the needs of a hygiene-cautious crowd who loves to read.

Scalable opportunity

The innovation has led Onepile to become one of the awardees of the Chan Dang Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Award in 2022—a new award launched at HKUST that encourages university members to turn business creative ideas into sustainable venture for promoting social good, with six project teams and startups each being awarded a grant.  

More than 5,000 books were donated and picked up via the digital bookcrossing machine - the turnover is stella!

With confidence, Danny contacted the newly renovated Central Market, who quickly showed interest to deploy the kiosk at their premise.

“We’re happy to see the city’s very first digital bookcrossing kiosk landed in this prime location on the Hong Kong Island,” says Danny. “Turnover is stellar; the kiosk’s booking schedule is often full, and we have seen more than 5,000 books being donated and picked up since the kiosk was launched in February 2022. We were able to receive press, and now we also have enquiries from real estate developers, schools, shopping malls, and government departments.”

Their initial success has prompted more deployment of the book crossing kiosk across the city: a housing compound in Tsuen Wan, a primary school in Tin Shui Wai, HKUST The Base, and other planned locations underway.

“What Onepile is doing, while delivering on ESG Goals (Environmental, Social, and Governance”), is also a great example of STEM education and applications,” says Jessie LEE (BSc Chem 2002), one of the team members who comes from the STEM education sector. “We are organizing talks and coding classes in schools for the young. Our bookcrossing kiosk is an excellent example to teach students what IoT (Internet of Things) is about.”

A primary school eventually bought a bookcrossing machine from Onepile, and their students, with teachers’ help, has customized the proprietary program for the school environment.

While the bookcrossing service is free for general users, the team hopes the programming classes conducted in schools and the programming toolkit they are selling would contribute as a source of income for the Onepile project to sustain.

A green action

Onepile currently has 5,000 strong members, and the team expects the number to balloon to over 50,000 as deployment locations continue to grow.

The next challenge, for Danny, is to secure sufficient funding to scale up the business and deploy kiosk across the city realizing the potential opportunities.

“With corporations paying more attention to ESGs in today’s world, we are very excited to see enquiries growing on this essentially “green” concept of ours. We believe there is room for businesses like ours that promote green-living and book-loving in Hong Kong.”

Onepile helped me find a purpose in my second half of life.

For Damon in particular, what Onepile does is more than giving used books a second life. “Having established my career in the insurance profession, I’ve reached a point where I wish to make a bigger impact on the community. I’ve read a book about finding significance in midlife and now I’ve found mine – promoting a reading culture and preserving the planet – that’s what Onepile and the team is doing. If there are students who want to join and help , we welcome them to contact us anytime.”

“Onepile has brought together different generations of HKUST members. We have students and alumni from various disciplines and professions to create something that they believe is simple, yet meaningful, for the residents of Hong Kong—a platform to read, and share,” concludes Jessie.

 

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Pushes Forward Research on Early Diagnostics and Gene Therapy for Neurodegenerative Diseases

Researchers at the Hong Kong Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (HKCeND), founded by The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), have made promising breakthroughs in early diagnosis and therapeutic treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) that have the potential to transform disease management. The team has established advanced biomarker discovery platforms, identified new blood-based biomarkers, and created an innovative artificial intelligence-based scoring system that enables risk prediction, early detection, and classification of AD. Furthermore, the team has successfully developed a gene therapy strategy as a novel therapeutic treatment for AD. 

Established in 2020 with an initial funding of HK$500 million from the Hong Kong government’s InnoHK Clusters initiative, HKCeND aims to be the world’s leading research center focused on neurodegenerative diseases. A multi-disciplinary team of prominent scientists from HKUST, University College London and Stanford University School of Medicine are engaged in cutting-edge research with the goal of developing novel biomarkers and identifying therapeutic targets and systemic factors to treat neurodegenerative diseases. 

AD, the most common form of dementia, is a devastating and incurable neurodegenerative disease that affects more than 50 million people globally. Treating AD remains a significant challenge since there are no objective diagnostic methods and patients are only diagnosed when the disease is at an advanced stage - after clinical symptoms such as memory loss appear. Given that disease onset is at least 10 - 20 years prior to the appearance of symptoms, early diagnosis of AD is the key to effective treatment. Early detection of AD, when it manifests as mild cognitive impairment or early dementia, would enable timely management/ therapeutic intervention resulting in improved outcomes. Biomarkers associated with early stages of AD have been found to have important applications in early diagnosis.

HKCeND researchers have extensive expertise in biomarker research. Previous achievements include conducting the first whole genome sequencing study of AD in the Chinese population and establishing the first comprehensive Chinese AD genetic database, resulting in the identification of AD genetic risk factors. These accomplishments have led to the development and establishment of novel and robust biomarker platforms at the HKCeND. Furthermore, by leveraging their genetic studies on Chinese AD patients and utilizing artificial intelligence tools, the team has developed the first deep learning-based polygenic risk scoring system that enables objective assessment of AD risk. 

The team has also identified blood-based protein biomarkers and is developing a customized panel of AD blood protein biomarkers that can accurately classify patients with AD and evaluate disease status from a single drop of blood. This technology can be applied towards developing a clinical tool to efficiently and effectively diagnose AD at an early stage and for disease stratification. Given the clinical value of such tests, the team is actively pursuing commercialization opportunities with strategic industry partners. Collectively, these successes are increasing the HKCeND’s stature as the preeminent center for advanced biomarker research and laying a solid foundation for the development of precision diagnosis.

Concurrent to their biomarker research, the HKCeND team is also focusing on developing new therapeutic approaches for AD, in particular, gene therapy. Gene therapy has not been considered a promising therapeutic approach for brain diseases such as AD due to the lack of an effective and non-invasive delivery tool capable of crossing the blood-brain-barrier. Recently, the team generated the first engineered delivery vehicle and demonstrated its ability to not only effectively cross the blood-brain-barrier but also deliver a genome-editing tool to the entire brain through a single non-invasive intravenous administration. Using this system, the team successfully disrupted AD-associated mutations and alleviated AD pathologies in the entire brain of AD mouse models. This work is an important milestone in the development of new disease-modifying therapies.

“Together with our collaborators from different parts of the world, we are drawing leading scientists in the field to conduct pioneering research at the Center. The InnoHK initiative provides an important platform for the Center to facilitate multi-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaborations to further advance knowledge for early detection and therapeutic treatment of AD,” said Prof. Nancy Ip, Director of HKCeND and The Morningside Professor of Life Science at HKUST. 

“We are confident that the Center will play a leading role in advancing research in neurodegenerative diseases, from talent development to conducting world-class research, to accelerate the development of precision diagnosis and medicine that will benefit millions of people globally,” Prof Ip added.

The research work of the Center is led by eminent scientists and brings together more than 60 researchers from all over the world. The Center is looking for research talent to join the fast-growing team, and is committed to nurturing a new generation of innovation and technology (I&T) talent.

Research and Innovation |
HKUST-led research reveals a novel molecular mechanism that regulates secretion of sonic hedgehog, shedding light on cancer treatments

(This article was originally published on EurekAlert! on May 7, 2022)

 

A research led by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has revealed a novel mechanism that regulates secretion of sonic hedgehog (Shh), a key signaling molecular that plays an important role in cancer progression, in mammals, opening the door to novel therapeutic strategies for cancer induced by the hedgehog signaling pathway.

The hedgehog (Hh) signaling pathway is instrumental in regulating embryonic patterning and facilitating the development of the central nervous system and organs of the human body.  Such a pathway transmitting information between cells is initiated by the Hh ligands, which are first secreted from the producing cells and then bound with specific receptors on target cells to induce Hh signaling (Fig. 1).

Hh signaling is a major target for cancer therapy because this pathway, when hijacked by cancer cells, can promote cancer progression.  However, all of the current Hh antagonists function to inhibit the activity of major factors mediating Hh signaling in target cells, but do not effectively block cancer progression that is promoted by the secreted Hh ligands.

Now, an international research team led by Prof. GUO Yusong, Associate Professor of Division of Life Science at HKUST, has revealed the mechanism governing the secretion of sonic hedgehog, a key member of Hh ligands in mammals, from the producing cells, offering new insights into inhibiting its secretion and shutting down Hh signaling pathway when it is hijacked by cancer cells, thereby hindering cancer progression.

In the conventional secretory transport pathway, newly synthesized secretory proteins are firstly translocated into the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), where they are folded and modified.  These proteins are then packaged into transport vesicles to be delivered to the Golgi apparatus to receive further modifications.  Subsequently, they are enriched in transport vesicles at the trans Golgi network (TGN) and delivered to the plasma membrane to be secreted to the extracellular environment (Fig. 1).

To study the secretion of Shh, Prof. Guo’s team used a Retention Using Selective Hooks (RUSH) transport assay to analyze the secretion of sonic hedgehog in a synchronized manner (Video 1).  Using this approach and other classical cellular and molecular biology approaches, the researchers elucidated that the secretion of Shh is regulated by the following steps:

  1. Cargo receptor SURF4 packages Shh into COPII vesicles by directly binding to the CW motif of Shh at the ER (Fig. 2, step 1).
  2. Upon reaching the Golgi, proteoglycans (PGs) compete with SURF4 to bind Shh and promote the dissociation of SURF4 and Shh (Fig. 2, step 2).
  3. The released SURF4 returns to the ER through COPI vesicles (Fig. 2, step 3).
  4. PGs promote TGN-to-cell surface transport of Shh (Fig. 2, step 4).


The research findings not only reveal a novel SURF4-to-proteoglycan relay mechanism that regulates the secretion of Shh, but also indicate that blocking the SURF4-Shh interaction is an effective way to inhibit Shh secretion.

Prof. Guo said, “This presents the possibility of developing novel therapeutic strategies to block cancer progression, especially ligand-dependent cancer progression, induced by Hh signaling pathway.”

The results were recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), with an US provisional patent already submitted by the research team for consideration.

Prof. Guo is the corresponding author of the paper, while Prof. Elizabeth A. MILLER from MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Prof. YAO Shuhuai and Prof. HUANG Jinqing from HKUST, Prof. ZHANG Liang from City University of Hong Kong, and Prof. HU Junjie from Chinese Academy of Sciences also participated in this study. Dr. TANG Xiao from HKUST is the first author of this study.

Research and Innovation |
HKUST researchers reveal RNA elements that enhance the cleavage of pre-miRNAs/shRNAs by DICER

(This article was originally published on EurekAlert! on April 19, 2022)

 

A research team led by scientists from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has revealed how secondary structure RNA elements control the cleavage activity of the DICER enzyme in both pre-miRNA and short-hairpin RNAs, improving the understanding of the DICER cleavage mechanism and providing a foundation for the design of accurate and efficient short-hairpin RNAs for gene-silencing.

In humans, microRNAs (miRNAs) govern multiple biological processes and play essential roles in various cellular functions.  These small RNAs regulate the level of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) used to make proteins.  The dysfunction in mRNA regulation caused by an anomaly in miRNA sequences or expressions is linked with various human diseases, including cancers and neurodegenerative and infectious diseases, making it a useful biomarker for disease diagnosis, prognosis, and drugs for treatments in the biomedical aspect.

The accuracy of miRNA sequences and expression is mainly determined by miRNA biogenesis, a process which involves DICER cleaving miRNA precursors (pre-miRNAs) to generate miRNAs.  Therefore, DICER cleavage controls miRNA expression and sequences, and thus its cleavage impacts miRNA functions.  In addition, the cleavage of DICER has been exploited in a widely-used shRNA (i.e., short-hairpin RNAs) gene silencing technology.  DICER plays a critical part in this technology by cleaving shRNAs into siRNAs, subsequently silencing targeted mRNAs.  shRNAs have been widely used in biological research and have also found their way into biomedical therapies.

In a paper published in Nature Communications on April 19, 2022, the research team, led by Prof. Tuan Anh NGUYEN, Assistant Professor in the Division of Life Science at HKUST, discovered the constructive role of a secondary RNA element called 22-bulge in the cleavage activity of DICER on shRNAs and human pre-miRNAs.

By designing innovative artificial substrate models called two-loop shRNAs, the team were able to conduct high-throughput cleavage assays with more than 20,000 shRNAs containing different sequences and re-construct uncleaved shRNA sequences from the cleaved products.  Using next-generation sequencing and computational analysis, they successfully monitored the activity of DICER cleavage for 20,000 different shRNAs at the same time and comprehensively identified various stem-loop junction structures that control the different cleavage features of DICER, including cleavage sites, double cleavages, single cleavages, and cleavage efficiency.

“Excitingly, among many secondary RNA elements we found in this study, we identified a single-nucleotide element, called 22-bulges, that exhibits the highest cleavage accuracy and efficiency of DICER on shRNAs and pre-miRNAs,” said Prof. Nguyen.  “Therefore, 22-bulges facilitate shRNAs' knock-down (KD) efficiency, allowing us to design a more effective shRNAs used in gene silencing technology.  In addition, 22-bulges are also found in many pre-miRNAs and are critical for proper miRNA production in human cells.”

“Our work allows us to understand the molecular mechanism of DICER cleavage and explain the functions of the secondary structure RNA elements in pre-miRNAs/shRNAs in controlling miRNA biogenesis and KD activity of shRNAs,” another co-first author and Prof. Nguyen’s student Trung Duc NGUYEN explained.  “In an application perspective, our findings provide an alternative approach to improve the current shRNA design for gene-silencing technology with higher KD efficiency and less off-target effect.”

Student development & Bonding |
The Missing Puzzle Piece for Elite Athletes

Minnie SOO and CHOW Hiu-Yau became Hong Kong’s sports stars, when the former bagged the city’s first-ever bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 table tennis women’s team event, and the latter captured a bronze medal at the 2019 Asian Open Figure Skating Trophy. Among the whirlwind of international competitions and training sessions that occupied much of their lives, it would seem that something was missing for them. 
 
The missing puzzle piece? School

“I have missed school dearly for 10 years,” says Minnie. “I turned pro when I was at Form 3. While initially I thought I would return to school after a couple of years, it turns out the competitions have kept me immersed in training every day. I miss classes and school life so badly that sometimes I dream about going back to school and feel sad waking up.”

After spending 10 years playing professional table tennis at the highest level, the 23-year-old has come to realize that she needs to plan ahead while still young. 

“A few months ago, I began suffering from yips, a nerve injury that entails pain and spasms to my strong hand when I was trying to conduct repetitions,” says Minnie. “While I took time off to heal my injury, I read, think, and review my options ahead, including a return to school. The injury put things into perspective for me. Then I applied for HKUST, because of its reputation and my sister, who also graduated from here.”

Now it is a dream come true. Minnie has been admitted to HKUST School of Science via the Student Athlete Admission Scheme (SAAS), and will be starting university in the 2022/23 academic year. She is the first local student athlete admitted mainly based on sports achievements, due to a recent enhancement of the scheme to provide more flexible admission and assistance to top local athlete applicants. 

“Hong Kong athletes currently lack options to pursue a second career outside of sports. HKUST aspires to provide them with the proper assistance and guidance to chase after their dreams and interests, as long as they show a commitment to pursue academics with the same ferocity. We celebrate the different talents that our students bring to the community,” says Professor King CHOW, Acting Dean of Students. 

Life’s Second Chapter

Also a young phenom, Chow Hiu-Yau has been puzzled about her future life after professional sport. 

“Anna SHCHERBAKOVA, the world champion and 2022 gold medalist, is only 17. If I were to challenge myself to higher heights, it is now, or never. At the same time, I want to plan ahead for myself — attending university while I compete is ideal,” says Hiu-Yau, who got accepted by HKUST as an engineering freshman via JUPAS last year.

“The Engineering School has offered me advice on course planning. All my lessons are arranged in two full days so I can use the rest of the week for training,” adds Hiu-Yau. 

For the athletes who get in via other paths, the University is also ready to help. 

Professor Emily NASON, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment and Admission, says the assistance would be as much personalized as it can be to suit the needs of each student athlete.

“Our team will get in touch with the athletes and their coaches to understand their needs. Our assistance includes a tailor-made class schedule that fits into their training schedule, course planning advice and in some cases, individual tutoring and personalized counseling services for athletes who represent Hong Kong in international competitions,” says Prof. Nason.

In addition, examination rescheduling and extending study periods can also be arranged if necessary. Student athletes may also receive tuition scholarships and living allowance of up to HK$42,100 and HK$55,000 respectively subject to requirements. Given all the assistance and offer, they need to meet the academic requirements like other students to earn their degrees. 

Late, but never too late

“The delayed graduation offer has really eased my worries,” says Hiu-Yau. “It is said that a skater cannot leave the ring for more than three days, or else you will lose touch. I am not ready to give up on my touch just yet, but I am also not going to give up my interests in engineering down the road.”

For Minnie, she is eager to prove that she has as much to show in her work, just like she does on court.

“I still have a lot of gas left in the tank and expect myself to make the adjustments and give it all on the court after my injury is healed,” says Minnie. “But at the same time, I do not take the decision to go to university lightly, and I am committed to do as much work as I am asked at HKUST. I want to do well.” 

Minnie adds that Physics is the discipline she would love to pursue. “Physics is what I would call a very intellectually challenging subject. I read a lot on Physics, and it helps me refine my table tennis skills, such as course prediction. Knowledge and education have done wonders for my mind.”

Prof. Chow certainly likes the determination that he sees from both, and the can-do spirit that is equally embraced by HKUST.

“Learning is always curiosity-driven at the university level,” Prof. Chow notes. “We want them to do well, both as an athlete and a student. I have no doubt that HKUST and our athletes will excel as a team.”
 

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Launches First Online Marine Environmental Visualization Platform Facilitating Marine Research and Conservation

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has launched today WavyOcean - the first interactive marine environment visualization platform which offers an unprecedented level of data on the ocean in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area (GBA), the entire China Seas1, and the Western Pacific Ocean. The platform will greatly facilitate marine research work and offer valuable data to policy makers on striking a balance between marine conservation and societal development, such as the Lantau Tomorrow Vision Plan.

Utilizing state-of-the-art oceanic numerical simulations, the platform not only visualizes oceanic processes, but also offers physical and biogeochemical data of the aforesaid oceans. Data available for download include environmental variables such as 3D ocean current, temperature, salinity, levels of nitrate, chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen; as well as atmospheric variables such as wind, temperature and pressure.  Such comprehensive data sets offered on a one-stop-shop platform is set to provide a solid foundation to research topics such as marine hydrodynamics, hazards, pollutions, ecosystem and changing climate.

“Since the in-situ collection of oceanic data is logistically difficult and greatly limited in space and time, observational data in ocean science is scarce,” Prof. GAN Jianping, Chair Professor of the Department of Ocean Science and Department of Mathematics who led this research, said. “Therefore we have developed the China Sea Multi-scale Ocean Modeling System (CMOMS) and subsequently WavyOcean to cover the entire China Seas spatiotemporally. WavyOcean does not only couple ocean circulation with the ecosystem in the region, but can also present visual and interactive 3D spatiotemporal variations for the transport of oceanic energy and substances, biogeochemical properties and the nature of ecosystem.  The platform itself is an innovative hub for research and ocean management while also being an informative source for the general public.”

WavyOcean is built on a decade of research works by Prof. Gan and his interdisciplinary team, with the support from the National Supercomputing Centers of Tianjin and Guangzhou. The WavyOcean project was supported by the Center for Ocean Research in Hong Kong and Macau (CORE), which was jointly established in 2019 by HKUST and the Qingdao Pilot National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology, as well as Ocean-HK, a research project sponsored by the Theme-based Research Scheme under the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong since 2017.

“With our continuous enhancement of WavyOcean, policymakers and scientists will be able to better study and deploy marine resources, mitigate the impact of climate change and the potential effects that new policies such as the Lantau Tomorrow Vision may bring to the marine ecosystem,” Prof Gan said. “We hope the public can better understand the ocean at their fingertips, and become more aware on the significance in protecting the ocean.”

WavyOcean can be viewed on website or on mobile devices using the WavyOcean app. 

Download the application here: 
QR codes

1South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea and Bohai

Research and Innovation |
HKUST and UChicago researchers find new ways of leveraging topological defects in liquid crystals to make “computer”

(This article was originally published on EurekAlert! on March 2, 2022)

 

Researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and the University of Chicago (UChicago) have shown for the first time how to design the basic elements needed for logic operations using a kind of soft material called liquid crystal, paving the way for a completely novel way of performing computations with potential applications in robotics.

“We showed that you can create the elementary building blocks of a circuit—gates, amplifiers, and conductors—with liquid crystals, which means you should be able to assemble them into arrangements capable of performing more complex operations,” said Juan DE PABLO, the Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at Pritzker School for Molecular Engineering, UChicago, senior scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, and the senior corresponding author on the paper.  “It’s not often that you are able to see a new way to do computing and it’s a really exciting step for the field of active materials.”

The research aimed to take a closer look at the molecular order in liquid crystals, a soft material that is commonly used in making LCD TVs and laptop screens.  The molecules in a liquid crystal tend to be elongated, and when packed together they adopt an orderly structure that can also shift around as a liquid does.

One consequence of this odd molecular order is that there are spots in all liquid crystals where the ordered regions bump up against each other and their orientations don’t quite match, creating what scientists call “topological defects.”

Scientists are intrigued by these defects, wondering if they could be used to carry information – similar to the functions that electrons serve in the circuits of our laptop or phone.  But it’s proved very difficult to control their behavior.  “Normally, if you look through a microscope at an experiment with an active liquid crystal, you would see complete chaos—defects shifting around all over the place,” said Prof. de Pablo.

But last year, an effort from Prof. de Pablo’s lab headed by Prof. ZHANG Rui, an assistant professor at Department of Physics, HKUST, then a postdoctoral scholar at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, in collaboration with Prof. Margaret GARDEL’s lab from UChicago and Prof. Zev BRYANT’s lab from Stanford, figured out a set of techniques to control these topological defects.

They showed that if they controlled where they put energy into the liquid crystal by shining a light only on specific areas, they could guide the defects to move in specific directions.  In a subsequent new paper, they took it a logical step further and determined that it should be theoretically possible to use these techniques to make a liquid crystal perform operations like a computer.

The results were published in Science Advances on February 23, 2022.

“These topological defects have many of the characteristics of electrons in a circuit—we can move them long distances, amplify them, and shut or open their transport as in a transistor gate, which means we could use them for relatively sophisticated operations,” added Prof. Zhang.

While the results are not likely to become transistors or computers right away, the technique could point the way towards devices with new functions in sensing, computing, and robotics, especially in the field of soft robotics.  Using active liquid crystals, the team said it might be possible to create soft robots that can do some of their own “thinking”.

They can also imagine using topological defects to ferry small amounts of liquid or other materials from place to place inside tiny devices.  “For example, perhaps one could perform functions inside a synthetic cell,” said Prof. Zhang.  It’s possible that nature already uses similar mechanisms to transmit information or perform behaviors inside cells, he said.

The research team, which also includes co-author and UChicago postdoctoral researcher Ali MOZAFFARI, is working with collaborators to carry out experiments to confirm the theoretical findings.

This work used resources of the University of Chicago Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

Student development & Bonding |
HKUST Admits Olympic Medalist Minnie SOO Through Enhanced Admission Scheme for Top Athletes

Table tennis Olympic medalist Minnie SOO Wai-Yam will be admitted to the School of Science at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) in the new academic year (2022/23), following the introduction of a new admission scheme for elite athletes by the University Grants Committee (UGC) last week.

Minnie Soo, a bronze medal winner of the Table Tennis Women’s Team Competition in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, is the first student admitted to the HKUST mainly based on her sports performance after UGC launched the new Student-Athlete Learning Support and Admission Scheme (SALSA).

To encourage students to develop non-academic talents such as sports, HKUST launched the Student Athletes Admissions Scheme (SAAS) three years ago to offer student athletes special admission arrangements, scholarships, living allowance, academic accommodations and other relevant assistance. There are currently around 15 elite athletes studying at HKUST. 

To better support SALSA, the University enhanced SAAS to provide more flexible admission and assistance to top local athlete applicants.  Apart from designated SAAS advisory committee, HKUST is set to recruit extra academic tutors to provide successful applicants with more flexible and personalized academic support.  That includes extending their study periods, study load adjustment, examination rescheduling, and class attendance waiver. They may also receive tuition scholarship and living allowance of up to HK$42,100 and HK$55,000 per year respectively, along with sponsorships on sports competitions, injury prevention, treatment trainings and counselling services.  

Minnie Soo, who will begin her life as a university student in September, said she was both excited and nervous. “It’s been a decade since I last studied on a campus.  I chose to become a full-time athlete at an age when I should be studying at school, because there is a golden period for every athlete and I want my full potential unleashed.  It has been a wonderful and rewarding journey, and now I will dedicate this passion to the second chapter of my life.” 

Enrolled in the school-based science program, Minnie said she is interested in physical science and is aspired to become a scientist or educator in the future.

Prof. Emily NASON, Director of Undergraduate Recruitment and Admissions, said the University is delighted to admit a devoted and outstanding athlete like Minnie to join the HKUST community.  “She never gives up on her studies despite a highly demanding training schedule, and overcomes painful injuries to score the victory. I truly admire her resilience, and see a great deal of resemblance to the can-do spirit at HKUST,” Prof Nason said. “The University will provide a holistic and supportive learning environment to these bright young athletes so they can pursue their academic dream while winning glory for Hong Kong.”

HKUST has re-opened SAAS to non-JUPAS applicants to allow more outstanding athletes to pursue their undergraduate studies in the 2022/23 academic year.  Deadline for both JUPAS and Non-JUPAS athlete applicants are now March 31.  Please visit the website of the scheme for more information.

Teaching and Learning |
A Mathematician’s True Calling

The year was 1996, and HKUST had just been founded a few years ago. Tim LEUNG Shing-Yu, a freshman studying mathematics, was not quite sure what opportunities were lying ahead.

“I remember vividly I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people on campus on my first day here. I had no idea what it was like to study at a university, let alone my future career. The only thing I knew for sure was my fascination for applied mathematics,” Prof. Leung, now Professor and Associate Dean of the School of Science at HKUST, recalls.

He had three years of engaging and dynamic university life during his undergraduate years and went on to complete an MPhil degree. When it was time to graduate, he was anxiously awaiting his job offer as a teacher, just as many of his classmates did.

“At the time, we all thought the only career for those who studied math would be teaching at a local secondary school. That basically would set a lot of people for life, and I was too waiting for my offer letter,” Prof. Leung said.

Luckily for Prof. Leung and HKUST, that offer letter did not arrive on time. Not before then-head of the Department of Mathematics, Prof. CHENG Siu-Yuen, spotted the young man’s talent and potential, and advised him to reconsider his options and pursue further graduate studies in the US.

“Prof. Cheng was adamant that I should apply for further graduate studies in the US,” Prof. Leung laughs. “Since overseas exchange was not common at the time, I had never been to anywhere during my undergraduate studies. So I told myself that I could treat it as my own belated exchange.”

As things turn out, a change of scenery was all a young and ambitious Tim needed to realize his enthusiasm for math. From 2001, Prof. Leung would spend the next eight years in the US, not only completing his PhD in math at UCLA, but also conducting three more years of post-doc work at UC Irvine. At one point, he thought he would never leave the US.

“When I completed my post-doc studies, I began to look for a full-time teaching position everywhere, but Prof. Cheng reached out again and asked whether I would be interested to work at HKUST,” Prof. Leung said. “I was not sure if I would ever be able to adjust to the life in Hong Kong again, especially after spending almost a decade in California; but how could I say no to my alma mater? And so I came home.”

More than just teaching math

Since returning to HKUST in 2009, Prof. Leung has always been looking for new challenges in teaching, mentoring, course-building, and of course, his own research. At the same time, he remains methodological in his approach—there would be no fancy powerpoint slides in his math lectures, only the good old whiteboard and note-taking.

“The way I conduct my classes is kind of old school but works well for math students,” Prof. Leung smiles. “This is how I go through with my students together: pull out the whiteboard, solve problems, do the coursework, mid-terms, and finals, rinse and repeat. Only by then, I believe, would one be able to claim the knowledge we teach in class his own. This is how we learn math. You get ahold of the basics, and we go from there.”

With the switch from a three-year to a four-year undergraduate system since 2009, a new emphasis has been put on broadening the horizons of undergraduates with minors and cross-disciplinary selective courses—a new challenge that he has embraced with both arms.

“Today, our emphasis is to get students to show initiative and learn on their own at an early stage,” Prof. Leung noted. “Our UROP program, for example, would be really challenging for my generation, where undergraduate students would be asked to conduct research on their own. But now? I am often surprised by the results and vigor shown by students I mentor in the program. They have learned much by taking classes in other disciplines, which probably stimulated their response to take initiatives in their own pursuit.”

UROP, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, is a signature program of HKUST that provides early hands-on research experience to undergraduate students since its launch in 2005. 

“I am very pleased to see the results and different career paths developed by some of the brightest students I have had mentored via UROP over the years,” Prof. Leung notes. “My first research student is now an assistant professor at HKBU, and he showed a lot of potential when he did UROP and then MPhil with me, where he would go on and win a Croucher Scholarship to pursue his PhD at the University of Oxford.”

The joy of nurturing math talent

And increasingly, the academia is no longer the only path math majors would pursue. Nurturing pillars of society is sure to be the most rewarding part of his career at HKUST.

“While I am proud to see some of my students land teaching and faculty positions in other universities in Hong Kong, I am also glad that many students take off their careers across a multitude of industries like IT, business, finance, and even running a start-up,” Prof. Leung says.

“Other PhD students, whom I have invited to share their career stories recently, have also led successful careers in investment banking and cryptocurrency,” Prof. Leung continues. “Did I teach them how to invest? Of course not. The fact is the skills they gained from vigorous training in applied math is transferrable. The sense of interpreting numbers, deciding strategies and algorithms can be applied in many industries. Employers are discovering that talented young minds with a solid foundation in math can easily adapt to different working environments and job duties.”

“I am now mentoring six graduate students, four at the MPhil and two at the PhD level, which is the largest group of students I have had since I joined HKUST,” Prof. Leung says. “From my earlier teaching days to now, I realized that my job is not only to teach knowledge, but I also have to put myself into students’ shoes and help them to understand the materials better,” adds Prof. Leung. In recent years, Prof. Leung has taken more new challenges in strides, from taking part actively in student recruitment to organizing the renowned Hang Lung Mathematics Award, in which he finds such diversity in working duties to be a joy and keeps his mind occupied in a variety.

To stir interest in STEM education and share his passion for math and science, Prof. Leung is also running his personal blog and YouTube channel, mixing in ways and approaches where younger students would find easy access to him. Teaching, indeed, is not limited to the conventional classroom setting.

“When I was young, I was probably wrong to think that I had only a limited set of options,” Prof. Leung says. “Now, we want to make sure everyone knows that the sky is the limit, no matter what you study. Put in the work, and expect the best.”

Research and Innovation |
HKUST scientists reveal the mechanism of skeletal muscle stem cell activation in muscle regeneration

(This article was originally published on EurekAlert! on February 24, 2022)

 

A research team led by LIFS Assoc. Prof. Tom CHEUNG has discovered the constructive role of a protein in driving the skeletal muscle stem cell activation to repair muscle following damage, laying the foundation for further study in the mechanisms of stem cell quiescence-to-activation transition and stem cell-based muscle regeneration.

Skeletal muscle stem cells, or satellite cells (SCs), are indispensable for repairing damaged muscle and are key targets for treating muscle diseases. In healthy uninjured muscle, these reserve stem cells lie in quiescence, a dormant state, to maintain the resident stem cell pool for future muscle repair. When muscle damage occurs, these quiescent muscle stem cells will quickly “wake up”, generating enough muscle progenitor cells to build new muscle.

Despite being a critical step in muscle regeneration, the muscle stem cell quiescence-to-activation transition remains an elusive process, and scientists’ understanding of its mechanism and the true quiescent SC proteomics signature – the information about the entire set of proteins – has been limited.

Recently, using a whole mouse perfusion technique developed in its own laboratory to obtain the true quiescent SCs for low-input mass spectrometry analysis, a team of scientists at the HKUST revealed that a regulating protein called CPEB1 is instrumental in reprogramming the translational landscape in SCs, hence driving the cells into activation and proliferation.

“In our study, we found discordance between the SC proteome and transcriptome during its activation, revealing the presence of a post-transcriptional regulation,” said Prof. Tom CHEUNG, lead researcher of the team and S H Ho Associate Professor of Life Science at HKUST. “Our analysis shows that levels of CPEB1 protein are low in quiescent SCs, but upregulated in activated SCs, with loss of CPEB1 delaying SC activation.”

In their subsequent RNA immunoprecipitation sequencing analysis and CPEB1-knockdown proteomic analysis, the researchers found that CPEB1 phosphorylation regulates the expression of the crucial myogenic factor MyoD – a protein involving in skeletal muscle development – by targeting some of the sequences found within the three prime untranslated region (3'UTR) of the target RNA transcript to drive SC activation.

Their findings were recently published online in the journal Nature Communications on February 17, 2022.

“It means that the manipulation of CPEB1 levels or phosphorylation can increase SC proliferation to generate enough myogenic progenitor cells for muscle repair, which could be a potential therapeutic target for muscle repair in the elderly,” noted Prof. Cheung, adding that the findings will play a fundamental role in the field as scientists continue to probe more comprehensively the mechanisms of stem cell quiescence exit and stem cell-based tissue repair.

The next step of the team’s research will involve assessing muscle regeneration in vivo in CPEB1-knockout mice to further strengthen the role of CPEB1 in SC-mediated muscle regeneration. “Furthermore, using high throughput screening, we can discover compounds that can upregulate CPEB1 protein expression to boost muscle regeneration,” Prof. Cheung said.