Feature Story
Dr Faye Tsang’s science adventure
Published on 06 Jan 2021

Dr Faye Suk-ying Tsang (Croucher Fellowship 2004) has retained the adventurous approach to scientific investigation that first led her to seek out small creatures around the parks and beaches of Hong Kong.

Tsang, a distinguished cell biologist with a special interest in pluripotent stem cells, remembers how her interest in science and nature was triggered, as a child, by visits to beaches and walks in the parks near her home in Sha Tin, Hong Kong.

“I was curious about nature from a very early age, maybe as a kindergarten child. When I was in gardens and beaches, I always liked searching for tiny creatures,” she said.

Tsang is an Associate Professor at the School of Life Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), and an investigator in both the State Key Laboratory of Agrobiotechnology (CUHK) and the Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Regenerative Medicine (Hong Kong). She believes those early inspirational moments were critical to her future career as a successful research scientist. 

“As a child, I also liked to read detective books and wanted to be a detective but I didn’t get a taste for real research until much later at the end of my university degree at CUHK,” she said, while acknowledging the influence of key mentors and teachers through her early development as a scientist.

She recalls it was her biology teacher at high school who encouraged her to undertake her own experiments and guided her school project investigating river pollution in the local Shing Mun river.

“Looking back now it seems like a very modest project but I really appreciate her passion and the time she devoted to supporting me and my work,” Tsang said.

She also noted the influence of her final year project supervisor, Professor Zhen-Yu Chen, and PhD supervisor, Professor Yu Huang, who were highly influential by posing challenging scientific questions and remaining open-minded.

“I think good mentors and supervisors are passionate, open-minded, supportive and inspiring,” she said.

When Tsang constructs a hypothesis for her research, she believes it is important to undertake a thorough literature review. Yet, she emphasises, it is also necessary to be creative, and open-minded. Sounding like one of the detectives from the books she read as a child, she said that it is important not be too restricted by existing knowledge and to be prepared to take risks when looking for answers.

“Some projects are considered more risky — the hypothesis is too novel or the test of hypothesis is very technically challenging and therefore can’t easily be tested in the laboratory,” she explained. An example of this high-risk approach was her project to investigate how the emergence of cancer stem cells were related to apoptosis reversal, apoptosis being the death of cells that occurs as a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development.

Apoptosis is one of the major mechanisms of how chemotherapy induces cell death. Traditionally, many people believed that once cells displayed hallmarks of apoptosis, the apoptosis process would continue. However, there was contradictory evidence indicating the process could be reversed after the chemo-therapeutic drug was withdrawn.

Tsang’s team proposed a novel hypothesis that the reversal of apoptosis would lead to the formation of cancer stem cells. Though some colleagues advised it would be too risky, Tsang persevered, knowing that in science high risk can result in high returns in impact or making a breakthrough.

The project was successful and established that the reversal of apoptosis does allow for the emergence of cancer stem cells from the non-stem cancer cell population.

When, three years ago, the Croucher Foundation invited their scholars to volunteer for the training in science communications, Tsang was immediately interested.

“I believe that science is something that can improve our quality of life. While most of the scientific research happens inside a laboratory, I hope that the public can be inspired, or at least maintain their passion for the natural world,” she said.

Aspects of her research are extremely complex but her specialist communications tutor advised her to focus on the big story with the biggest impact first and then elaborate with the detail later, in order to engage the audience. During the training, the tutor also made participants deliver separate presentations aimed at different audiences, such as academic colleagues and school children.

“It forced me to think about how I can deliver my message in an easily understandable way for my audience,” she said.

On completion of her training, Tsang formed one part of a two-person show with another scholar. They delivered shows to local primary schools in Hong Kong, with science adapted as performance art to inspire school children.

The first part of the show demonstrated how a scientist makes hypotheses and how to test them by experiment, in a simple and exciting way. The second part of the show required the scientist to explain their complex work to children as young as nine to twelve years old.

“Much of my research is focused on heart muscle cells so I start by talking about the human heart and cardiac disease, and showing them a heart model. I have a poster with pictures too because a nice picture is worth a thousand words,” Tsang said.

“I like to inspire interest in the kids.  I think about my past and the way I was interested in nature and wonder if it was just a natural instinct which my parents and teachers encouraged me to pursue,” she said.

“Maybe this could encourage another young person to pursue their passion. I think it’s a really worthwhile use of my time.”

Dr Faye Suk-ying Tsang is an Associate Professor at the School of Life Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). She obtained her PhD degree from CUHK and underwent postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California in the United States. She has published more than 70 papers and several book chapters in the area of stem cell research and cardiovascular research and serves as the reviewer for several grant agencies and scientific journals. She was awarded her Croucher Fellowship in 2004 and collaborated with the Croucher Foundation as a science communicator for Croucher Science Week, part of the Hong Kong Science Festival.

Extended reading:

  1. Dr Tsang’s personal page (The Croucher Foundation): https://scholars.croucher.org.hk/scholars/tsang-suk-ying-faye
  2. Dr Tsang’s personal page (The Chinese University of Hong Kong): http://www.sls.cuhk.edu.hk/index.php/faculty-and-staff/teaching-staff/26-sls/faculty-and-staff/teaching-staff/96-professor-tsang-suk-ying-faye