Learning how to communicate cutting-edge cancer stem cell science
Published on 31 Aug 2022

Dr Stephanie Ma Kwai Yee (Croucher Innovation Award, 2014) was well into her career as an award-winning biomedical research scientist focused on cancer stem cells before she learned how science communication can bridge the gap between academics such as herself, and the wider public.

As a principal investigator studying stemness of liver cancer stem cells at the University of Hong Kong, (HKU) Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, Ma heard about the Croucher Science Week and enquired about taking part in the project.

She underwent the training programme in 2017 and went on tour with a presentation partner to more than 20 local primary and secondary schools over the course of two years, delivering science presentations and talking about her work.

“A professional performer and a science communicator taught me how to perform and asked me lots of questions about what I did and about my research, and they helped me to design a way of explaining my work,” she said.

Ma’s work is focused on identifying novel stemness vulnerabilities in cancer using the Asian prevalent cancer type, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) as a model system. She is working to establish new molecular signatures and markers for predicting cancer occurrence, recurrence, and drug resistance and identify targets directed at cancer stemness for precision medicine.

Her team recently expanded their studies into the cancer stem cell microenvironment to try to understand how different cell types, like immune cells, contribute to cancer stemness in the liver.

“We explore how CSC and the tumor microenvironment interact,” she said.

She obtained a patent that applies to a neutralising antibody her team developed in-house which specifically targets a protein called ANAX3. This protein is secreted by the CSC and is important for maintaining its aggressive stemness features. Her team is now working on humanising this antibody for further translational work in humans.

Liver cancer like HCC is growing worldwide. It is estimated that by 2025 more than 1 million individuals will be affected by liver cancer annually. Liver cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths in Hong Kong. In 2019, 1,530 persons died from liver cancer in the city, accounting for 10.3% of all cancer deaths.

Ma’s work is of obvious relevance to a broader audience, but the challenge was how best to explain the complex nature of her work to a school student?

“We were not trained to do this. We usually just stand on a podium and give a lecture to university students or a scientific audience, but with school kids they lose their interest quickly, so within one minute, you need to express yourself,” she said.

Her performance coach helped Ma and her fellow volunteers with expression, presence, body language and how to stimulate enthusiasm. She found a simple analogy to convey the essence of her complex biomedical research in simple terms.

She explained to the school students that tumours are heterogenous, like a gum ball machine — full of different coloured balls which represent different cell types. When the cancer cells are killed by a cancer therapy, only the red balls remain in the machine. These red balls represent the cancer stem cells which are more resistant to drugs and therapies. Understanding how the red balls remain in the machine and resist the therapies is essential to developing more efficacious cancer therapies.

Ma thinks the new emphasis within universities on knowledge exchange and translatable science, and developing an ability to communicate beyond a small circle of specialists, is more important than ever.

“You have to be able to tell other people who are not in your field what you do and the importance of what you do. Before the Croucher training workshop I was not comfortable in doing that,” she said.

It has also changed her teaching technique from being didactic to being more interactive. “I will throw my students questions, ask them to play games and be more comfortable with that. I hope I am more entertaining but more importantly, a better teacher,” she said.

Dr Stephanie Ma Kwai Yee obtained her B.Sc. (Cell Biology and Genetics) and M.Sc. (Experimental Medicine) degrees from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She graduated with a Ph.D. degree from The University of Hong Kong (HKU) with an outstanding ranking and was awarded the Li Ka Shing Prize for the Best PhD Thesis of that year. She is an Associate Professor and Associate Director (Knowledge Exchange and Global) in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine (HKUMed). Ma is also a Principal Investigator at the State Key Laboratory of Liver Research at HKU. Ma’s research interest is on exploiting stemness as a cancer cell vulnerability.

Ma was the recipient of the 2008 Young Scientist Award in Life Sciences from the Hong Kong Institution of Science, the 2012-13 Outstanding Young Researcher Award from HKU, the 2014 Croucher Innovation Award from Croucher Foundation, the 2014 Scientific Research Outstanding Achievement Awards (Second-class Award in Science and Technology Section) from the Higher Education Institution of China, the 2017 University of British Columbia Alumni Builder Award (Canada), the 2018 Ton Duc Thang University Scientific Prize – Rising Star Award (Vietnam), and the 2021 Research Grants Council Research Fellow Scheme. Ma is a Founding Member of the Hong Kong Young Academy of Sciences in which she currently serves as Vice-President and the Co-chair of their Outreach Committee. She is also a member of the Board of Directors at Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation.