Nature-loving Marine Scientists Preserving Our Habitats for Future Generations

The young Prof Karen Chan, HKUST’s Assistant Professor of Life Science, and her equally energetic postgraduate students are a group of nature-loving talents who spend time at HKUST’s Coastal Marine Lab (CML) to work with crabs, urchins, mussels, and oysters. At the waterfront Lab which captures exclusive sea views and the aroma of sea water, they take their intellectual pursuits seriously while enjoying everything that Mother Nature has to offer.

HKSAR, encompassing as much as 26% of the marine biodiversity of China, has plenty to offer as far as marine biology and oceanography are concerned. HKUST, with its Coastal Marine Lab, provides an ideal habitat for marine scientists to discover the secret behind their beloved marine organisms.

“Despite the fact that Hong Kong is a coastal city, we know very little about the ocean,” said Wilson Yeung, a local MPhil student of Life Science. “After completing undergraduate studies at HKUST and the final year project under the supervision of Prof Chan, I was thrilled to discover that the ocean plays a fundamental role in our daily lives. Studying marine organisms at their larval stages is crucial to learning about how the changing environment impacts marine life, especially how the population is sustained.”

Now working on one of Prof Chan’s research themes about how climate change impacts on living organisms, Wilson’s mission starts with feeding his mussels and helping them bear babies, after which he can experiment on these larvae and develop a model to explore how these organisms respond to warming temperature.

Elizaldy Maboloc, a PhD student in Marine Environmental Science came to Hong Kong from the Philippines as a recipient of the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship. Specializing in oceanic acidification and its impact on marine organisms, he studies snails, an invasive species in Hong Kong, and tries to fill in current knowledge gaps.

“Acidification affects not only the organisms being studied, but the food they are eating. I thus explore the long term, transgenerational effects of exposure on ecological interactions, the ways in which organisms adapt, and the mechanism behind their survival,” Elizaldy elaborated. “I hope to formulate new conservation strategies through research to ultimately protect the rich biodiversity in my home country.”

Jan Schniete, a German student of physics from the UK’s University of Strathclyde, has come to HKUST for seven weeks as a visiting PhD student. “I work on high-resolution microscopes and have no prior experience with living organisms. During these weeks at HKUST, I learn about sea urchins, take videos, acquire data, and create velocity maps. Working on the imaging side of things, my goal is to come up with an application dedicated to the imaging of larvae. Since what works well with organisms may not work well with microscopes, I need to find a solution to combine the best of both worlds.”

First-class lab environment

Team members talked with excitement about HKUST’s superb lab environment, saying that it is a blessing to conduct top-notch research here. “The Coastal Marine Lab (CML) provides a stable environment with handy equipment so that we can focus on our research and innovation. The Center of Laboratory Supplies (CLS) on the other hand, enables shared equipment which provides not only convenience but also alleviates the burden of each individual lab to keep stock of loads of equipment separately,” said Wilson.

Prof Chan and her team especially praised the seasoned lab technician, the ‘God-sent’ expert Dr Tam Yin-ki at the Coastal Marine Lab, for her commitment to help solve problems almost on a 24/7 basis.

Jan echoed, “The equipment here is at least on par with, if not better than those I see elsewhere. Here at HKUST, we have permanent staff to take care of lab facilities; this is a privilege not found in many universities around the world.”

Also accessible from HKUST are custom-made equipment from the University’s Design and Manufacturing Services Facility (DMSF), other equipment such as the Liquid Chromatograph(LC) - Mass Spectrometer(MS) from the Environmental Central Facility (ECF), as well as the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FT-IR) and Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) from the Materials Characterization and Preparation Facility (MCPF), just to name a few.

Meeting those with ‘big names’ in person

On top, HKUST’s research platform encompasses research exchange opportunities and global travel grant, of which Elizaldy has taken full advantage. He has attended major conferences and courses abroad ranging from Larval Biology at the Friday Harbor Labs at the University of Washington, Larval Biology Symposium in Honolulu, to Annual Meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) in New Orleans. There, he met face-to-face with ‘those big names you read on academic papers’ such as Richard Strathmann from the University of Washington and Rachel Collin from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Wilson has also widened his exposure via opportunities such as a workshop organized jointly by the academia and professional bodies with support from government departments on eco-shoreline. The area of study new to Hong Kong explores how, instead of just straightening shorelines with concrete walls, it is possible also to have eco-friendly shorelines designed to enable growth of living organisms and sustainable coastal development.

Order among the hustle and bustle

Prof Chan has cultivated a close and friendly relationship among her students, resulting in a close-knit and fun-loving dream team for work, studies and play. As Elizaldy mentioned, “We are not only lab mates, but also friends or even family”.  For instance, they had outings in Hong Kong’s countryside, for which Jan recalled with amusement the unexpected ‘attack’ by a wild boar in the city often called ‘the concrete jungle’.

At HKUST’s seaside campus, Wilson’s favorite activity is to climb up and down the rocky beach in a sunny day under the beautiful blue sky and light cirrus to find mussels for his research. Besides, he loves playing handball and other sports for free on campus.

Both Elizaldy and Jan favor walking around the campus and its neighboring woods to see sunrise and to enjoy the fresh air.

During their stay in Hong Kong, the overseas students have developed new and existing hobbies. Jan who is a lover of board games has quickly picked up Chinese mahjong and expeditiously beat his teammates, a game which he refers to as one about logic and luck. Elizaldy is happy to find stores selling American comic books, which are stress relievers for the high achiever.

They are equally impressed by the ‘orderly crowdedness’ in Hong Kong. “It is amazing: it’s crowded but there’s an order in it. There are pedestrian walking districts, and drivers respect rules to give way. I’ll miss the crowd here,” said Elizaldy from the Philippines. Jan agreed, noting that it was quite a compliment coming from a German whose countrymen are known for their efficiency, “There are arrows on the ground at platforms of the subway, and people follow them; it’s extremely efficient.”

As for Prof Karen Chan, she joined HKUST as an Assistant Professor after completing BSc Program in Environmental Life Science at the University of Hong Kong, MSc and PhD Programs in Oceanography at the University of Washington, and working as a postdoctoral scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Apart from exploring how the environment impacts living organisms and vice versa, her team also conducts surveys in Hong Kong waters. Being described by her postgraduate students as an approachable professor who maintains open communication with them especially regarding problems and solutions, Prof Chan is also keen on nurturing curious young minds, promoting science literacy in addition to seeking advancement in K-12 classrooms. With a passion for nature and teaching, it is perhaps not surprising that she met her other half, a physicist with the same passion, at HKUST.

And her motto: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught,", said  forestry engineer Baba Dioum in his address to the United Nations five decades ago.

Prof Chan has certainly been successful in her education mission: Wilson has set his mind on passing on his knowledge and passion to high school students, Elizaldy on conserving marine environment back home, and Jan on enhancing technologies to enable the pursuits of marine scientists.