Lab research has student hooked

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am


Looking through a powerful microscope as life develops inside the translucent egg of a zebra fish may seem a little like gazing at a crystal ball. But Jeffrey Jenkin Kelu is not looking to predict the future.

The third-year biology student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is conducting research on 'doming', an intricate part of gastrulation, the process in which dividing cells shuffle into three-dimensional forms that lead to embryos and eventually adult animals.

The zebra fish is a good candidate to study the process because the egg develops precursors to all its main organs within 36 hours of fertilisation.

Although such studies are not usually included in undergraduate programmes, Kelu has been able to engage in relatively sophisticated research through the university's undergraduate research opportunities programme (Urop), which enables students to work on their own projects with professorial supervision.

'Urop has given me a chance to have a taste of 'real' research in the field of biological science,' he says. 'Under the guidance of my supervisor, Professor Andrew Miller, and laboratory colleagues, I learned to design my own experiments, analyse data and interpret results.

'Compared with the laboratory courses which provide students with detailed 'recipes', this has taught me to think outside the box. The Urop experience is truly inspirational,' says Kelu, whose research work has been shortlisted for an undergraduate award.

Kelu hopes his investigations into doming will help other scientists expand research, which may lead to a much better understanding of malformations of human embryos.

Gastrulation defects result in conditions such as caudal dysplasia, a total or partial failure of development of the lower vertebrae; Holt-Oram syndrome, a disorder that affects bones in the arms and hands and may also cause heart problems; and DiGeorge syndrome, which can include recurrent infections in babies and heart defects.

Research opportunities in Urop are divided into two streams to meet the needs of students with different goals. The tasting stream is aimed at novices seeking to gain research experience, and the series stream is designed for students who become committed to research after initial experience in Urop.

Eligible applicants need to be enrolled in a full-time degree programme for at least two consecutive semesters. They must also attain a cumulative grade average (CGA) of B minus or above. Applicants are also required to submit a formal journal paper or conference paper report outlining their field of research interest and what they hope to achieve. Applicants can submit their proposals online and find out more about the programme at

To ensure that investigations are pursued at greater depth, students may engage in only one Urop project each term. As a rule of thumb, each student is expected to devote at least three lab hours per week on the research project, although the actual number of working hours is determined by the supervising faculty together with the student. For students who come under the supervision of the same faculty for both their final year and Urop projects, the latter category cannot contribute to more than half of their final-year work.

'Participating in Urop is definitely a tremendous experience for me and, most importantly, it has helped to sharpen my competitive edge for graduate studies,' says Kelu, whose interest in biology was inspired by his science teacher at Ying Wa College in Sham Shui Po.

While the research experience has enthralled Kelu, he has yet to decide finally whether to pursue a doctorate. He is also considering becoming a science teacher after taking part in a summer school where he designed experiments for primary pupils.

Engineering students will have the chance to take part in research at Princeton under a new summer exchange programme between the HKUST and the Ivy League institution in New Jersey. HKUST is the first university in Asia to enter into a partnership with Princeton to provide students with undergraduate opportunities combining hands-on research experience with international exchange, says Khaled Ben Letaief, chair professor of HKUST's department of electronic and computer engineering.

The eight-week programme will be another option to enrich undergraduate research learning in highly ranked universities in engineering and technology.

HKUST engineering students will work with Princeton professors while students from the US institution will undertake research in collaboration with HKUST faculty members as well as research teams at the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute.

Through the exchange programme, students will become more independent and confident, develop new skills, learn about different cultures and have an opportunity to improve their English, Letaief says.

'The new perspectives students will gain will help to provide valuable preparation to succeed in evolving and in multicultural work environments,' he says. 'These are also crucial qualities to pursue further studies in the information age. Having a research experience there gives students an eye-opening experience of the best academic and research standard in the world.'