Research and Innovation |
Active Liquid Crystal Systems Examined in Search of Autonomous Materials Systems

(This article was published on EurekAlert! on April 19, 2021)

 

Liquid Crystals (LC) are widely deployed in display technology and optical fibers. From smartphones in your pockets to large screen TVs, LCs are everywhere, as this special state of matter has been found in colorful soap bubbles as well as certain living tissues.

But LCs are by no means limited to use in gadgets or electronic devices. For quite some time, scientists have been studying the possibility of creating "active nematics," a particular class of active LCs, which consist of self-driven units capable of converting chemical or other forms of energy into motion. When administered the proper stimuli, scientists have found that they can generate a predictable response from different LCs, which allows for design of smart, multifunctional materials systems, such as a bacteria-killing multiphase systems capable of self-regulating and reporting the presence and elimination of pathogens. Previous studies have demonstrated that light patterns can be harnessed to direct the creation and motion of topological defects in LCs, which could serve as cargo carriers or signal transmitters that further enhance the response of the material.

Their findings were published in the journal Nature Materials on February 18,2021. The work was a successful collaboration between several research groups, including Professors Juan de Pablo, Margaret Gardel, Vincenzo Vitelli and Aaron Dinner from the University of Chicago and Professor Zev Bryant from Stanford University.

Sculpting well-defined structures in liquids could in principle enable the engineering of functionalities that are otherwise only possible in solid materials. Existing efforts towards this goal often-times rely on multiple components or phases that are far from equilibrium and difficult to control, thereby limiting their application.

Introducing local activity into such liquid structures could therefore open opportunities for a wide range of applications, for example, mimicking the behavior of cells. However, manipulating these embedded or sculpted structures remains difficult. Thanks to the underlying local molecular orientational field, topological defects in LCs represent stable inhomogeneous structures, which may allow the embedding of flexible structures into a liquid medium.

"Active LCs are a nascent field, and many phenomena remain to be elucidated and applied," said Prof. Zhang Rui, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics, HKUST, who is one of the co-authors of the research. "Our study investigated different active LC systems, including natural systems, such as cell colonies, biopolymers and bacteria, as well as synthetic systems, which mimic the adaptive and autonomous behaviors found in living matter."

The study, which was recently published in Nature Reviews Materials, reveals that distinct types of active LC systems all exhibit striking similarities with one another but, more importantly, these systems exhibit a high sensitivity to the environment, such as interfacial events, which makes them potentially programmable and autonomous for a wide range of applications.

"The sensitivity to interfacial events, such as temperature gradients and hydrodynamic flows, can be exploited for the detection of ionic species, gases, toxins, and bacteria," noted Zhang. "By engineering the corresponding interfaces, we can impart a transient activity to these LC systems, which would make these self-propelling LCs a potential candidate for applications such as microreactor design and targeted drug delivery."

"We knew these active materials were beautiful and interesting, but now we know how to manipulate them and use them for interesting applications," says Professor Juan de Pablo, the vice President and Professor of Molecular Engineering of the University of Chicago, a corresponding author of the study said. "That's very promising."

"Active materials are promising in the sense that they don't need real-time communications, human intervention, and external power supply," says Zhang. In the future, Zhang group will continue to collaborate with the Chicago group to explore the possibility of logic operations through these active liquid crystals, which could lead to an applicable autonomous material that can compute and take necessary actions based on their calculations. "With the realization of such intelligent materials, we don't have to read the manual of a medicine, and the capsule would decide how much dose to be released while inside your body; or your window can decide its color and whether to open even in a catastrophic event including an electricity blackout," says Zhang.

Student Development & Bonding |
Breaking Misconceptions about Postgraduate Degrees

Being a world-class researcher has been a dream of Kevin LAU Shun-Fat. When Kevin completed his first degree in biochemistry and cell biology at HKUST in 2016, he was determined to pursue a postgraduate degree. The question was: where?

“There is a common view among local undergraduates that getting your postgraduate abroad offers superior research opportunities and a better experience in general. As it turns out, not really,” he says.

The right mentor is everything

Now a third-year doctoral neuroscience student at HKUST, Kevin has been studying with Prof. Nancy IP Yuk-Yu, Vice-President for Research and Development and the world-famous neuroscientist who delves into the research of target therapy drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. Under Prof. Ip’s supervision, Kevin has published seven academic papers and obtained the opportunities to attend many international conferences.

“Prof. Ip helped us get plenty of exposure with her international network,” says Kevin. “One time the renowned Belgian molecular biologist Bart DE STROOPER visited HKUST. Prof. Ip introduced me to him, and we discussed my research work which he found so impressive that he invited me to an international conference in Sweden for a presentation.”

That was the first time Kevin joined an academic conference as a presenter instead of a participant, surprising some attendees that he was just a doctoral student.

“People asked me if I was there to look for a faculty position. They were amazed when I told them I was still studying my PhD, because in Europe or the USA, it’s almost impossible for a student to participate in such a big research project, not to mention giving an academic presentation, which is usually reserved for professors,” Kevin recalls excitedly.  

Demonstrate the value of your research

In addition to the networking opportunities, the ample, accessible resources, including financial support, enabled Kevin and his research group to continually test their ideas and make good progress in their research.

“Some research experiments can be costly, but if you can prove the results, there would often be funding available.”

“In our research we had to conduct an experiment of ‘single cell transcriptomic analysis’, an advanced cell analysis technology that could help us prove our research hypothesis, but its cost was HK$300,000. We explained the experiment proposal to Prof. Ip, and thankfully, she was convinced and approved the funding. Otherwise, our research progress would probably be stalled.”

Kevin added that the state-of-the-art research facilities at HKUST are conveniently put in one place and accessible to students, resulting in minimum red tape and waiting time.

Graduating this summer, Kevin now focuses his attention on the research project and has yet to decide whether he would choose to be an academic scholar or join a particular industry for his future career.  In any case the five-year master and doctoral studies have left no doubt he made the right choice.

PhD holders can only be researchers? No!

The appeal of postgraduate studies is in fact not limited only to researchers, but also those eager to apply their skills and knowledge in business and public service. Gone are the times when, for instance, a graduate from a scientific background could only work in a related field or study for a postgraduate degree, says Prof. Tom CHEUNG, S H Ho Associate Professor of Life Science about the career prospects of his students.

“The economy is becoming growingly tech-oriented, and all sectors of economy need science and technology expertise. That is why, financial institutions, like investment banks, hire our graduates as they need, for instance, biotechnology researchers to advise on investment decisions when it comes to frontier healthcare technology,” says Prof. Cheung.

“Contrary to popular thinking that postgraduate studies narrow your possibilities, it will in fact open many more doors for you,” Prof. Cheung says.

With the economy hit hard by the pandemic, the decision to pursue postgraduate studies may be affected by financial considerations.

“My parents worried whether I could support myself if I didn’t look for a job. But actually postgraduate students can apply for scholarship that can cover tuition fees and living costs,” says Kevin.

Only top students get admitted? No!

For those who wonder if your undergraduate grades would affect your chances of admission, Prof. Charles NG Wang-wai, Dean of HKUST Fok Ying Tung Graduate School, says what is often more important is your commitment.

“If you have a mediocre grade but did particularly well in chemistry, for instance, you will still stand a chance for getting into a postgraduate program in chemistry. Do reach out to professors to discuss your research plans and make a case for admitting you to show that you are committed,” advises Prof. Ng.

HKUST offers postgraduate programs leading to graduate diplomas, masters, and doctoral degrees. In particular, Research Postgraduate Programs (RPgs), comprising Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Master of Philosophy (MPhil), involve the completion of coursework, independent research, and a successful defense of thesis. Check out the application details, deadlines and scholarship here.

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Find Wearing Face Masks May Reduce Cancer Risks Associated with Airborne Carcinogens

Researchers from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have recently proved that apart from protecting us from inhaling respiratory droplets that contain pathogens, surgical masks are also effective in blocking airborne carcinogens, reducing cancer risks such as lung cancer and leukemia.

The team, led by Associate Prof. Wan CHAN and Prof. Jianzhen YU from the Department of Chemistry and Division of Environment and Sustainability at HKUST, found that in addition to virus-carrying droplets, face masks could also efficiently trap a wide range of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) compounds, including its most toxic forms, in ambient air. 

While the cancer-causing PAHs – sized three-ring or above, could be 8,000 times smaller than the respiratory droplets produced by sneezing[1], the team found that ASTM Level 1 face masks with a BFE (bacteria filtration efficiency) of ≥ 95% can block up to 70% of the compounds. The filtration rate further jumps to almost 75% with ASTM Level 2 or Level 3 masks with BFE of ≥ 98%, indicating that wearing a face mask could potentially reduce cancer risks associated with such airborne carcinogens by up to 70%.

PAHs are generated by combustion processes, such as vehicle emission, cigarette burning, and incense burning, and are ubiquitous in the atmosphere. Inhalation exposure to PAHs has been proven by years of scientific research to have close ties with the development of lung cancer and leukemia. It is crucial to monitor personal exposure to ambient PAHs for cancer risk assessment and management.

For years, researchers monitor airborne PAHs through the standard testing method (NIOSH 5506) recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which requires special tools for the collection of ambient PAH samples.  Now, the HKUST team samples through individual’s nonwoven fabric mask.  With a comparable accuracy in test results, the new sampling method is more convenient than the traditional way, saving time for instrumental set up and most importantly, allows personal tracking down to individual’s exposure to PAH, offering valuable information to personal health management and turning every single mask wearer into a mobile sample collector.  The data collected could also be used to analyse specific sectors’ or occupations’ exposure to PAHs, helping the government and different industries to implement relevant measures for occupational safety and public health. 

“Besides protecting us from airborne pathogens, surgical masks can reduce our exposure to cancer-causing PAHs. The detection method developed by us can be used to conduct a more targeted and systematic assessment of the PAHs content inhaled by individuals and in the atmospheric environment,” Prof. Chan said. “We hope that the application of face masks can be extended to monitor other non-polar air pollutants, such as Toluene, which is commonly used in the manufacturing of paint and dye.”

“Our research is the first in demonstrating the quantitative sampling of air pollutants with an ordinary face mask. The novel use of ordinary masks as personal dosimeters has great potential in advancing our ability in tracking personal exposure to various airborne pollutants.” Prof. Yu said.

The findings were recently published in scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143281/   

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Unlock the Micro-Molecular Physiochemical Mechanism of Dental Plaque Formation

An inter-disciplinary team of researchers led by Prof. Qian Peiyuan, Chair Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST)’s Department of Ocean Science and Division of Life Science has unraveled how a novel microbial small molecule released by Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans) – a bacterium commonly found in the human oral cavity – is connected to dental caries development using a synthetic biology approach, offering new insights to the health impact of the human oral microbiota and facilitating future research on the prevention of tooth decay. The research findings were recently published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Chemical Biology and reported by Nature as one of the research highlights.

Every wetted surface on our planet is covered by biofilm made of microbial cells meshed in extracellular organic matrix.  An early study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) concluded that over 80% of human bacterial infection were caused by biofilm . Thus, S. mutans, a natural and primary inhabitant of the human oral cavity that has strong ability to form biofilms and produce organic acids, has long been acknowledged as the major etiological agent of dental caries.  

The development of dental caries, or tooth decay, is a complex process that mainly depends on the presence of microbial biofilms on the tooth surfaces, which are known as dental plaque.  Tooth decay has been recognized as one of the most common bacterial infections and costly chronic conditions afflicting humans.  Annually, the global economic burden of treating tooth decay amounts to billions of dollars1. Although the macromolecular agents of S. mutans for biofilm formation and development have been extensively investigated, the role of small-molecule secondary metabolites in biofilm formation of S. mutans remains largely unexplored. 

Prof. Qian’s research team has been studying the microbe-animal interactions mediated by signal molecules from biofilm, using integrated genomics, transcriptomics and chemical biology approaches.  Recently, the research team has extended their work on biofilms related to public health. 

In collaboration with Prof. ZHANG Wen-Jun and Prof. Roya MABOUDIAN at University of California at Berkeley, and Prof. Robert BURNE at College of Dentistry, University of Florida, the team has discovered a polyketide/non-ribosomal peptide biosynthetic gene cluster, muf, which directly correlates with a strong biofilm-forming capability, from S. mutans strains clinically isolated from dental plaque. Then, the muf-associated bioactive product, mutanofactin-697 that contains a novel molecular scaffold was identified. Further mode-of-action studies revealed that this unique microbial secondary metabolite promotes biofilm formation via an unprecedented physicochemical mechanism: this small molecule binds to S. mutans cells and extracellular DNA, increases bacterial hydrophobicity, and subsequently promotes bacterial adhesion and biofilm formation. 

Prof. Qian, also David von Hansemann Professor of Science at HKUST, said, “Our findings provide the first example of a microbial secondary metabolite promoting biofilm formation via a physicochemical approach, highlighting the significance of secondary metabolism in mediating critical processes related to the development of dental caries.” 

LI Zhongrui, a researcher of the team, said this discovery will enable further mechanistic exploration of mutanofactin-related chemical regulatory processes in human oral ecology and streptococci-induced dental caries incidence and prevention.

1Global oral health burden amounts to $442 billion
https://www.nature.com/articles/bdjteam2015148

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Find Novel Way to Produce New Kind of Chiral Molecules Bringing New Hope for Drug Development

A research team from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) has discovered a method that would allow the production of a new type of spherical molecules not easily obtainable before.  Preliminary testing has also shown that such molecules – chiral tetraarylmethanes (CTAMs), display good deterrent effects against cancer cells such as those of cervical, lung, breast and colorectal, as well as the virus causing the Hand, Foot and Mouth disease (HFMD) and a type of coronavirus.  

According to the preliminary biological activity study, the spherical chiral molecules produced by this new method possess anti-cancer and anti-viral qualities. One molecule, for instance, demonstrated inhibiting effect against HeLa cells (cervical cancer cells) comparable to that of Doxorubicin – a common deterrent against the growth of such cells, but with a toxicity level 28 times lower*, indicating that such spherical chiral molecules could be used to develop cancer treatments with fewer side effects.

The molecules are also found effective against enterovirus A71 – the culprit behind HFMD**, which is still incurable by medicine as of today.  Upon application of the spherical molecule at low concentration, the amount of virus yield fell by up to 121 folds.  The molecules can also inhibit the replication of a common cold virus called OC43.  Since it is a human beta-coronavirus, there is a high chance that such spherical molecules may also be effective against other coronaviruses, such as SAR-CoV-2 that causes the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over half of the approved drugs currently used belong to the chiral drug family, but almost all are linear and disc-shaped types of molecules. The other type - spherical molecules – exemplified by CTAM, was underutilized due to the difficulties in synthesizing them. One of the challenges involves the need to overcome a substantial energy barrier in bonding the four different aryl groups inside the molecule around a small carbon atom (see the molecule’s structure below in Fig.2), another challenge is that the bond must be made in a specific 3D orientation.

Now, a team led by Prof. SUN Jianwei, Professor of the Department of Chemistry at HKUST, managed to overcome the problems by using a tagging strategy. 

“Synthesizing CTAM is like finding and connecting a small kid surrounded by three giants among a sea of people to another giant, and it’s immensely difficult to put the fourth giant in place.  What we proposed here is to use the tags we implanted on the existing aryl groups to spot and direct the fourth one in approaching the middle carbon via a specific route,” Prof. Sun said. “Chiral spherical molecules have long been an overlooked domain, we hope our discovery would pave the way for another dimension of drug development.”

The findings were published in Nature Catalysis, see also the finding’s publication in EurekAlert!

 

*This was compared with the toxicity of Doxorubicin toward MRC-5, a normal cells in the lung tissue.

**According to the Centre for Health Protection, there is no specific drug treatment for Hand, Food and Mouth Disease

Announcements |
Discovering Science at HKUST (21 & 28 November 2020)

“Discovering Science at HKUST” is an annual event organized by the School of Science to provide an opportunity for senior secondary school students, who have a strong interest in studying science, to learn more about the School and its programs.

 

Date

21 November 2020 (Saturday) (SSCI-A / SSCI-A (AI) / IRE / MAEC)

28 November 2020 (Saturday) (SSCI-B / IRE / BIBU)

 

Time

2:00pm - 4:30pm

 

Channel

Zoom

 

Target

S6 HKDSE students

 

Program Schedule

  • Introduction to HKUST School of Science
  • Career talk on why to study Science
  • LIVE sharing and real time chat with current students
  • Admission Talk and Q&A session

 

Recognition of Participation

In recognition of students’ participation, OEA bonus points will be awarded to S.6 students (for 2021 intake) if they complete either one of the sessions (21 or 28 November) and keep one or more of the following programs as their JUPAS Band A choices:

  • Science (Group A) Program (JS5102)
  • Science (Group A) with an Extended Major in Artificial Intelligence (JS5181)
  • Science (Group B) Program (JS5103)
  • International Research Enrichment Program (JS5101)
  • Biotechnology and Business Program (JS5811)
  • Mathematics and Economics Program (JS5813)

 

Registration

Interested students please register on or before 18 November 2020 via:

 

https://events.science.ust.hk/Discovering-Science-2020

 

A confirmation email with details of the event will be sent to participants on 19 November 2020.

 

Teaching and Learning |
HKUST Launches HK’s First Degree Programs with Extended Major

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) will introduce a novel academic framework “Major + X” as a new degree option for undergraduates.  Blending traditional programs with emerging hot topics such as artificial intelligence, this new degree structure not only offers students with greater flexibility, but also allows timely curriculum adjustment and better integration between existing and new knowledge to meet with the emerging need of the society.

Under the new framework, two new bachelor degree programs – Science (Group A)*  with an extended Major in Artificial Intelligence (“Science-A + AI”) and Engineering with an extended Major in Artificial Intelligence (“Engineering + AI”), will be launched in the 2021/22 academic year.  Students enrolled in the two programs will choose their major – such as Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Civil Engineering or Ocean Science and Technology from either science (group A) or engineering before the second year begins, while taking AI courses as an extended major. 

“New technology and knowledge are emerging at an unprecedented pace in this digital era, while it may not be the most effective to launch a new program on every emerging knowledge, it is essential to incorporate new knowledge such as AI into our system so students could make sense of such novel technologies in real-life applications.  Physics students, for example, would want to learn how to analyze billions of fast-disappearing data on particles with AI; while Civil Engineering students may wish to find out the most optimal location and materials for a project and its relevant risks with AI, this is why we launch the major + X initiative,” said Prof Lionel NI, Provost of HKUST. 

 

Read more about HKUST’s initiative on AI:
HKUST Establishes Center for Artificial Intelligence Research to Spearhead Comprehensive Development of AI

 

This major + X approach allows students to finish their study within a four-year timeframe with a well-defined study pathway, and graduate with a title bearing both the traditional major subject they selected, and the extended major X which covers emerging areas such as AI and probably data science, FinTech or digital media and arts later. 

“When computer science or Internet first emerged several decades ago, they were studied under traditional disciplines.  Eventually, computer science has developed into a standalone discipline, while Internet remains as a subject area.  Our major + X approach could offer more flexibility to our students, so they can seize the opportunities when a new area emerges, while also remain adaptable if an area becomes obsolete,” said Prof. PONG Ting-Chuen, Senior Advisor to the Provost and Chairman of the Undergraduate Admissions Subcommittee.

“Science-A + AI” (JUPAS code: JS5181) and “Engineering + AI” (JUPAS code: JS5282) have an intake quota of around 40 and 150 respectively for the year 2021/22.  Students of the two programs will be given priority in selecting AI subjects – both mandatory and elective courses, which comprise around 21 to 24 credits in total.  Students will also have to complete a capstone project on applying AI in the area of their major study.

 

Read more about our recently-launched program:
HKUST Launches HK’s First Ocean Science and Technology Degree Program
 

 

“HKUST has always been a pioneer in innovative education, we are among the first to realize interdisciplinary teaching, e-learning, introduce research opportunities to junior students and novel programs that meet latest societal needs.  We hope this new “Major + X” model would again, help us groom the right talent for this era,” said Prof. Ni, adding that the University will consider launching more programs under this new framework in the future.

HKUST will hold a Virtual Information Day this Saturday (October 17) on the University’s latest academic programs and admission requirement.  Interested parties can register in advance.

 

*  Science (Group A) major covers Mathematics, Physics, Ocean Science & Technology.

 

HKUST was among the first in Asia to implement online education:
HKUST among the First in Asia and Only One from Greater China To Become Global Online Education Partner of Coursera 

 

More about HKUST’s latest efforts in online teaching:
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Minerva Project Collaborate to Provide Enriching Learning Experiences for Students

 

 

Research and Innovation |
HKUST Researchers Developed the World's First Sound-transmitting Glass Material

Glass is a sound-proof material, but researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have discovered a way which allows sound transmission for glass, opening a new horizon for the potential development of smart phones and other electronic devices that can function under water, while also offering greater flexibility to building design.

Using the theory of local resonance, a research team led by Prof. WEN Weijia from the Department of Physics has found that by crafting a structured pattern of openings in between glass panes, the sound waves’ mode of vibration will be altered, allowing sound to pass through.

The concept is similar to playing flute, where players can change the tone by adjusting the position of holes on the instrument.  The glass with inlaid cavities can also transmit different sound frequency through the adjustment of those cavities’ shape and size.

The finding, made in collaboration with researchers from Chongqing University and Shenzhen Fantwave Tech. Co, was recently published in top physics journal Applied Physics Letters.  

"The discovery overturns the concept regarding the use of glass in acoustics and provides a theoretical basis for new applications,” said Prof. Wen.  “If holes or openings in glasses are no longer required for sound transmission, manufacturers can design more long-lasting water-proof mobiles or electronic devices.  Interior settings which require both transparency and sound transmission - such as those of the bank teller counters or prison reception cells, may also find our technology useful."

As a renowned scientist in advanced functional materials, Prof. Wen’s discoveries span across microsphere and nanoparticle design and fabrications, soft matter physics, smart materials, metamaterials, electronic materials and microfluidics, many of which were eventually transferred into commercial products.

A thermal sensitivenano gel which he discovered in 2009 for example, has recently been applied in the production of a smart glass which transparency changes automatically according to the ambient temperature and solar radiation intensity. This automatic atomizing glass can block up to 70 per cent of the sunlight, effectively reducing indoor temperature by 5 to 8 degrees and minimizing energy consumption by air conditioning.

Sunlight-blocking glass has been a product made of well-known technology, but for installation on a building they all require power in changing opacity. The material developed by Prof Wen was the first one that allows glass to serve such purpose without needing an external power. The smart glass is now deployed in at least 8 mainland cities and provinces including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Guangdong on facilities ranging from schools and hospitals to residences and exhibition halls.

 

Find out more on other works of Prof. Wen’s:
Homepage for Weijia Wen and his group

Student Development & Bonding |
Helping Hand for the Needy during Crisis

Before the third wave of COVID-19 outbreak hit Hong Kong in mid-July, Ryan FUNG Kei-Ning, an HKUST Year 2 business student, along with staff of the Salvation Army Integrated Service for Street Sleepers, used to go on evening outreach trips to bring food and daily necessities to the homeless up to three times a week; recently, he has had to cut the number down to one.

Knowing that homeless people are among the most vulnerable to the coronavirus due to reduced health and medical support, Ryan offers support to help them off the streets.

“The disadvantaged have been hit really hard by the pandemic. Many of them who used to work in food and beverage have been laid off and can’t make ends meet,” Ryan says. “They have no choice but to live on the street.”

Even worse, the recent dine-in bans after 10pm have left many of the homeless people who used to seek refuge at 24-hour fast food chains with virtually no place to take shelter. Ryan then began to help the non-governmental organization (NGO), which serves street sleepers in Yau Tsim Mong district, compile a list of available community centers in the neighborhood that would allow them to stay temporarily during this difficult time.

On top of this, Ryan has also taken up the role of managing the organization’s social media page and finding ways to raise public awareness of homeless people.

Ryan began his internship at the NGO in July via participation of the Student Civic Fellowships, which HKUST Connect offers to give students opportunities for community service and personal growth. Student fellows work for six weeks to 12 months in an NGO or corporate social responsibility projects. This year, participating students showed their creativity and determination to continue their service despite physical limitations posed by the pandemic.

Used to aspire to a high salary career, Ryan has since realized that social value is more important than monetary benefits. “I work with many very experienced social workers and I am fortunate to be able to learn from them. While doing that, I also try to bring value to the mission wherever I could,” Ryan says.

Carina YIP Fung-Ting, a Year 4 biological science major who worked with the Chinese YMCA Chai Wan Neighborhood Elderly Centre, was also required to work from home. The arrangement inspired her to engage the elderly in innovative ways.

Given social distancing measures, elders who would normally spend their day at the center together now have to stay at home. So, she came up with the idea to share essential health tips about protection against COVID-19 through a series of five short videos explaining, for instance, how to handle masks while dining out and how to disinfect themselves when they return home.

“While the younger generations have no difficulty finding the right information online, the elderly may need some help. That’s why I came up with the idea,” explains the recipient of the Mrs Choi Ma Oi Kuen Public Service Leadership Program Award, which HKUST Connect offers to develop students' leadership skills and sense of social commitment through trainings, internships, and leading social service projects of their own.

Another video Carina produced was a step-by-step guide on how to make your own bleach for general household cleaning and disinfection. “We always hear about the 1:99 ratio, meaning mixing one percent of bleach with 99 percent of water. But how does one, let alone the elders, know how to measure it easily?” she asks. The videos she produced are shown on TV in the center and shared with the elders via their instant messaging platforms.

A long-time volunteer, Carina has worked with various NGOs since secondary school and carried on at HKUST. The pandemic has accentuated the need to reach out to the community by non-conventional means, she says.

“It brightens up my day to see people happy, so even though I may not be able to see the elders in person at the moment, I still love spreading joy around – only that it has to take a whole new medium,” she says.

Announcements |
HKUST Virtual Information Day for Undergraduate Admissions

WHEN 17 October 2020

 

TIME 12:00pm - 8:00pm

 

HKUST Virtual Information Day for Undergraduate Admissions is scheduled on October 17 (Saturday) from 12 NN to 8 PM (Hong Kong time). Themed “Dare to Dream, Ready to Achieve”, this online event offers you the opportunity to learn more about our admissions activities and life at HKUST.
 

Below are the highlights you can look forward to at our Virtual Information Day:

  • Have individualized consultation with our Admissions representatives.
  • Join our live admissions talks and student-sharing sessions, and get answers to your questions straight from our HKUST faculty, admission officers and students.
  • Visit our virtual booths and receive information materials on your Department or programs of interest.
  • Watch videos featuring the student life and community that define HKUST.
  • Explore the university through our Campus 360 virtual tour.
     

Students, parents and teachers are welcome to join! Do not miss the opportunity to learn more about the world-leading undergraduate programs at the world’s top young university. 

 

Please visit https://join.ust.hk/vinfoday for details and registration.

 

ORGANIZER

Undergraduate Recruitment and Admissions Office

 

REGISTRATION

Click Here to Register

 

CONTACT

Enquiry: infoday@ust.hk

 

 

Arts & Creativity |
Recognizing Talents in Arts and Diversity

HKUST’s emphases on science and technology disciplines does not deter artistic talents from pursuing their studies and interests in creative endeavors. The University offers a wide range of scholarships to honor students also for their outstanding non-academic achievements.

For Exodus SIT, one of eight recipients of the Tin Ka Ping Scholarship (Arts), HKUST’s coastal, suburban location not only is a beautiful university to pursue his undergraduate studies, but is also strategic to pursue his greatest interest - stargazing.

Read another related article: Picture Perfect Balance for Student Life

 

During his four years majoring in Mathematics, Exodus led the Student Astronomy Club, strived to teach popular science on social media, and actively participated in international astronomy organizations.

But the astronomy buff isn’t only into science, he is also a music lover who plays multiple instruments. Last summer, in combining his two interests, he sent a Cantonese song called “Deep Sky Objects” that he composed to the edge of outer space through a music player mounted on a high-altitude balloon.

The title of the song refers to the stars that can only be seen in dark skies. “I wrote the song to tell people that we have to protect the night sky from excessive light for us to see stars in the clear sky,” he says.

“I always try to find new ways to inspire people to learn more about astronomy and science in general. Since I play music, I thought I’d try and merge the two,” he says. “It turns out music is a wonderful vehicle for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education.”

His “out of this world” achievements and “out of the box” creativity earned him the Arts Scholarship. Tin Ka Ping Scholarship was offered for the first time last year to encourage students to broaden their exposure, unleash their potentials and chase dreams.

Exodus says the Scholarship not only recognizes students’ artistic achievements, but a vivid demonstration of the University’s effort in helping students attain all-round development. “Science or arts, it goes back to the heart of education. In fact, in the old days, Renaissance astronomists had to be well-versed in the arts, philosophy, and science.”

Read another related article: Keeping Eyes On the Target

 

The Arts Scholarship is one of many other non-academic scholarships the University has set up to attract freshmen with diverse talents. One of which is Diversity Scholarship, for students who are “making substantial contribution to and impact on the student body or society at large”, among other criteria.

Alexis YIP, a Global China Studies graduate of 2020, was a recipient of the Diversity Scholarship for her dedication to the establishment of Rainbow Bird, the first LGBTQ+ support group established at the University, with two other students when she was in Year 2. The idea was to raise awareness about LGBTQ-related issues and provide peer emotional and social support to HKUST community members who are concerned about their sexual and gender identity.

“We formed the group because we felt students needed the support. We wanted to let everyone at the University know ‘you are safe and free to speak your mind here’,” she recalls. She also set up an art exhibition to break down stereotypes about LGBTQ people, reflecting her commitment to the University’s core values of Inclusiveness, Diversity, and Respect.

Besides the Diversity Scholarship, Alexis was also awarded last year the Stephen Cheong Kam-chuen Medal for Distinguished Service to the Student Body, which recognizes students who best exemplify the qualities of caring, constructive, and dedicated leadership during studies.

“I think of true inclusivity as people seeing each other as fellow human beings and not treat some people differently based on race, sexual orientation, disability, or mental capability,” she says. “I’m hopeful we are going in the right direction in creating an inclusive environment.”

Don’t miss the opportunity to have your achievement being recognized like Exodus and Alexis! Check out the list of scholarships available for all students here.

Research and Innovation |
The Science behind COVID-19 Testing

By Prof. Jason Chan, Assistant Professor of Science Education in the Department of Chemistry

Resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong once again left us all worrying about our safety in the midst of the global pandemic. Laboratory tests for the coronavirus is our essential frontline defence to identify infected persons for treatments and isolation. In this article, let’s take a look at the science behind how testing for the novel coronavirus is carried out.

To receive testing, a deep throat saliva sample will be collected and sent to the laboratory for screening to see whether it contained the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The screening test is based on One-step Reverse Transcription Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-qPCR). To appreciate how the test works, we need to break it down into smaller parts.

 

1. Reverse Transcription (RT)

Our genetic information is stored and encoded in the sequence of four bases (A, T, C, G) on a polymer chain called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Different stretches of these bases would encode for amino acid sequences of our proteins.

When our body needs to manufacture a certain protein, it would start by making a copy of the genetic codes to use as the transient storage. The cell chooses to write this transient copy in RNA (ribonucleic acid). The RNA copy of the gene is known as messenger RNA (mRNA). This process of forming mRNA from the DNA is known as transcription.

RNA viruses use RNA instead of DNA to store their genetic information. Some of them use their viral RNA directly as mRNA inside a host cell(such as SARS-CoV-2), while others (such as HIV viruses) convert their RNA into DNA once they enter a host cell to allow them to insert their viral sequences into the host’s DNA genome and trick the host to make copies of the virus. This process of making a DNA copy from RNA is the reversal of transcription, known as reverse transcription. RNA viruses have an enzyme called reverse transcriptase that carries out this reaction and the DNA produced from the RNA in this way is called complementary DNA (cDNA). cDNA is needed for the next step, PCR, as the template material.

 

2. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)

The PCR reaction produces millions of copies of a target segment of DNA from even a single copy. This amplification of DNA sequence can provide scientists with sufficient amounts of DNA materials allowing them to study and work with them, such as to check if a match is present with a viral sequence.

The PCR reaction mixture contains at least these key components:

  • template (the original DNA material from which copies are made)
  • heat-stable DNA polymerase (an enzyme to make DNA copies)
  • two short DNA pieces called primers (to mark the start and end of the target section)
  • the substrates for making new DNA chains (dNTPs)
  • magnesium salt (Mg2+ is a co-factor for the polymerase)
  • buffers (to maintain optimal pH for the enzyme).

This mixture is placed into a small plastic tube and into a thermocycler that would subject the mixture to cycles of the two key temperatures: 95 oC (3 sec) and 55 oC (30 sec).

At 95 oC, the template, in our case, the double-stranded cDNA from reverse transcription step would separate into two single strands. This step is called denaturation.

Then upon cooling to 55 oC, two DNA primers which are specific to SARS-CoV-2 sequences would now try and find complementary sequence to pair up with. If the cDNA from the virus is present, they will find the sequence and bind with it. This step is called annealing. Once the primers annealed with the correct sequence, DNA polymerase enzymes would also build new DNA copies during this period. This step is called extension. After this step, we would end up with two DNA strands from only one that was started with.

When the temperature is returned to 95 oC for the next cycle, the extension would stop as the newly formed double-stranded DNAs separate into single strands. They will be ready to act as templates when they hit 55 oC.

With each cycle being repeated, the number of DNA strands present would be doubled, such that after 45 cycles, there will be up to 245 copies of the target the DNA present.

 

3. Real-time or Quantitative PCR (qPCR)

One inconvenience for the usual form of PCR is there’s no way to know if the reactions are working well until all cycles are completed and you run a test to check the products. Scientists developed a modified version of PCR that allowed them to monitor the PCR reaction in real time as copies are being made. This is called real-time PCR or quantitative PCR. This is achieved by adding a DNA probe that has complementary sequence to a short region within the target gene. This probe contains two features: a reporter fluorescent dye (FAM) capping one end and a quencher unit (BHQ1) at the other end. When both ends are attached together on the probe, the quencher prevents the fluorescent dye from glowing and giving any signals.

During the annealing step, the probe would bind onto the template strand and the polymerase would eventually reach that position during chain extension. At this point, the polymerase would cleave off the fluorescent reporter from the probe, and fluorescence can be observed under UV light. Measuring the intensity of fluorescence signal gives us a way to tell if the PCR is going well within the tubes.

 

4. One-step RT-qPCR

Mucus samples collected from the deep throat of patients suspected of infection may contain the coronavirus and the viral RNA can be detected by a RT-qPCR reaction.

The first step is to convert the RNA in the viruses into cDNA by reverse transcription. The cDNA is then used for qPCR reaction in the next step.

Traditionally, one would have to extract the cDNA from reverse transcription (RT) before adding that into the qPCR reaction mixture. This two-step procedure is slow and tedious. In one-step RT-qPCR, these two steps have been combined into a one-pot reaction, which increased efficiency greatly. Temperature alone can control RT or qPCR steps.

In this article, we described the original protocol developed by CDC. Improved procedures have since been developed that would provide higher sensitivity (e.g. SYBR® Green probes).

 

5. Control experiments

The reliability of COVID-19 tests is of paramount importance. After all, no one would want to be falsely diagnosed with it (called false positive). On the other hand, it would pose a great danger to the public if the infected were mis-diagnosed as negative (called false-negative).

RT-qPCR tests are not fail-proof and it is possible to mess up at the various stages of the test. To prevent errors from creeping in, a set of control experiments are included to ensure each stage of the test is working as planned.

The first stage is the extraction of nucleic acids from the patient’s specimen. To check this has been done well, a human specimen control sample is included in the test kit. Both of these samples are needed to be tested positive for the presence of a common human gene (RNase P gene).

Next, a sample of SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid sequences are included in the test kit. They are used as positive controls. These control samples need to be tested positive to ensure the RT-qPCR is functioning properly. Additionally, a negative control is also done that contains no biological sample and that should give negative results to all the tests.

A unanimous confirmation is only given when a patient’s sample is tested positive for not one, but three segments of sequences that are specific to SARS-CoV-2 and all the control experiments showed their expected results.

 

Let us not forget to thank all the laboratory workers for their hard work in providing us with reliable screening tests! Should you feel unwell with even the slightest symptoms of COVID-19, you should arrange for a screening test at a private or government clinic at the earliest instance!