Breakthroughs  and 

Breathtaking  Horizons

Brilliant neuroscience discoveries at the atomic level await for members of the Zhang Lab@HKUST, but there is also room to engage with the bigger picture of life

For recent PhD life science graduate Menglong Zeng, the past 12 months have seen the fulfilment of the hopes and dreams he had when in 2011 he joined the Zhang Lab@HKUST, led by world-renowned structural biologist Prof Mingjie Zhang.

Menglong became the lead author of breakthrough research published in Cell, a top scientific journal. He and his family celebrated his graduation at the University’s breathtaking coastal campus in Hong Kong. Not keen to leave the place he has called home for the past five years – or the girlfriend he found at HKUST – the high flyer also secured a post-doctoral fellowship to continue his ground-breaking studies at the University.

Lab of First Choice 

“I chose to come to HKUST for three main reasons,” said Menglong, originally from Hunan Province in Mainland China. “The high-ranking, very competitive science being carried out and completed at the lab; Prof Zhang’s dedication to science, daily presence in the lab, and willingness to communicate with and advise his graduate students, which I thought would be very good for my development; and the lab’s multidisciplinary nature, enabling life scientists to explore questions together with people from different fields, including physics, chemistry and even computer science.”   

The focus of the Zhang Lab and its 20-plus members is the human brain, in particular neuronal structural biology. For the past two decades, Prof Zhang, Kerry Holdings Professor of Science in the Division of Life Science, and his team have been exploring and providing cutting-edge insights into molecular mechanisms that can help explain disorders such as autism, depression and schizophrenia and assist clinicians and the pharmaceutical sector in developing fresh strategies to tackle them.

Menglong’s Cell publication, “Phase Transition in Postsynaptic Densities Underlies Formation of Synaptic Complexes and Synaptic Plasticity”, co-authored by Prof Zhang and others, describes important new findings related to protein molecules SynGAP and PSD-95 – known to play a role in autism when altered by gene mutations – and their assembly. In addition, the study shows how defects in the proteins can lead to changes in synaptic signaling activity of neurons and contribute to central nervous system diseases, opening up further avenues for exploration.

“My goal is to resolve questions that other scientists have failed to address,” Menglong said. “Being in a position to provide answers that people haven’t been able to find for a very long time by being involved in this project in this lab has been really exciting. It is a thrilling moment when that happens.”

Inspirational Campus 

Having earned his bachelor’s degree at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which has around 46,000 students (over 29,000 postgraduates) and multiple campuses in bustling city locations, Menglong was interested in trying out the different lifestyle provided at the compact, coastal HKUST, with just over 14,000 students (close to 5,000 postgraduates). “The University’s campus is located away from downtown. This makes it easy to concentrate, which is just what you need as a science postgraduate. It is also really beautiful,” he said.

Another special benefit of research life at HKUST, Prof Zhang noted, is how the University’s design and layout specifically fosters collaboration with faculty from other fields. “All science and engineering faculty are physically located in one building, which is rare internationally and an opportunity for collaborations that cannot be offered in many other places. For example, you might have an engineering colleague that you meet on a daily basis. This makes many aspects of collaboration much easier than elsewhere.”

Such an environment is inspiring. Along with his Cell article, Menglong has published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Neuron while at HKUST. In 2016, he received the Outstanding Platform Presentation Award in the Hong Kong Inter-University Postgraduate Symposium in Biochemical Sciences and the Hong Kong Institution of Science-Towngas Hong Kong Young Scientist Award in the Life Science category.

Close Friends, Critical Colleagues 

Within the Zhang Lab, there is both harmony and stringent analysis of each other’s work. “We have intense debates about data and challenge each other all the time, which is very helpful for our professional life,” Menglong said. “Yet in our personal life, we are very close and hang out together a lot. We go for dinner, watch movies, hold lab parties, all of which is a lot of fun. I think this lab culture is very important. We are close friends but very critical colleagues.”

For Prof Zhang, developing such a lab atmosphere is a key part of his role.  He strives to make the time spent in his group happy and rewarding to encourage his team members to take up science research as a career. To do so, he starts from the premise that every student’s project must be one with potential to make a significant contribution. “Students will then feel excited from the start about what they are doing. I think everyone wants to contribute to society, which in our case means adding to science’s fundamental knowledge.”  

His vision of the relationship between student and supervisor – crucial for anyone considering a research career, as Menglong noted earlier – is one of alignment rather than angst. “When students first come here or I go to interview them, I always make this very clear. If you come to my lab at HKUST, you are not going to work for me. If you are motivated and interested, I will be very happy to work with you and help your career develop.”

In addition, the high quality of lab members and HKUST’s established reputation for world-class research facilitate joint studies and lab stays at leading global institutions. In Menglong’s case, he spent a “very valuable” six months as a visiting student at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in his recent breakthrough project worked collaboratively with researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Building All-round Graduate Success

On top of his scientific work at the Zhang Lab, another significant discovery for Menglong is the importance of having a life outside it. Finding a girlfriend and going on dates, casual games of basketball when living in hall on campus, taking time to enjoy the magnificent sea vistas from the campus, all are beneficial in becoming a more rounded and happier person and encouraged by Prof Zhang. “Efficiency, not how much time you stay in the lab, should be the aim,” he said. “Research is certainly a major part of life, but should not take up your whole life.”  

Further support is at hand with social activities and professional skill-building activities provided by various units of HKUST. Students are thus able to enjoy the best of both worlds, as Menglong has found. “We do spend a lot of time on our research, but the lab culture also recognizes the importance of critical thinking and communicating with others,” he said. “When you talk to people from different labs or Schools, you often gain inspiration from them.” Eureka moments may not be far behind.