Dr Stephanie Ma and her co-performer Dr Krates Ng at the Croucher Science Week school tour. Photo: Croucher Science Week

Croucher Science Week: Dr Stephanie Ma

30 March 2022

Participating in a Croucher science education programme has helped Dr Stephanie Ma Kwai Yee to explain complex science including her own research in cancer biology.

Dr Stephanie Ma Kwai Yee (Croucher Innovation Award 2014) is an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong working at the forefront of cancer research with a focus on stem cells and the tumour microenvironment in liver cancer.

In 2017,  Ma joined forces with a group of equally passionate and dedicated Croucher scholars who together have brought science closer to the lives of school students in Hong Kong. 

Following an intensive training programme in science communication, Ma and her co-performers joined the Croucher Science Week school tour and have performed in more than 20 primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong and through online talks reached an audience of over 125,000 young people.

“I was taught stage techniques including acting, voice, movement, timing and improvisation. This helped me to design a way of explaining my work,” she said.

Ma’s scientific work focused on identifying novel stemness vulnerabilities in cancer using hepatocellular carcinoma 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.

“Stephanie is an amazing researcher despite her heavy administrative and teaching duties. She is also highly committed to knowledge exchange activities at the university, as well as the outreach programme set up by Croucher Foundation. Her research in cancer biology is exciting and innovative, full of translational opportunities,” said Professor Danny Chan (Croucher Senior Research Fellowship 2014), interim director of the School of Biomedical Sciences at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.

Ma is an associate professor in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong.

Explaining the details

Ma’s work should be interesting to a broader audience but explaining the complex nature of her work is a challenge.

“As academics, we are not trained to do this. We usually just stand on a podium and give a lecture to university students or a scientific audience, but primary school students lose interest quickly, so you have about one minute to express yourself,” she said.

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 workshops I was not comfortable doing that,” she said.

It has also changed her teaching technique from being didactic to being more interactive.

Secondary school students doing experiments at the university lab.

“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.

In 2021, inspired by her experience of the Croucher Science Week school tour, Ma and her colleagues in the School of Biomedical Sciences organised the HKU Biomedical Sciences Summer Academy, which encourages secondary school students and teachers to learn more about biomedical sciences. Participants engage in a weeklong interactive program, where they collaborate on hands-on science activities, explore the university’s facilities, and have roundtable discussions with professors at the university.

Croucher Science Week

Croucher Science Week is a science festival held every spring in Hong Kong in partnership with the Hong Kong Science Museum and the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong SAR Government. International organisations participating in Croucher Science Week have included the London Science Museum, the Australian Museum, and the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Croucher Science Week engages large audiences of primary school students, secondary school students, teachers and families in a series of activities designed to spark curiosity, develop thinking skills, and encourage our audience to ponder some of the fundamental questions of science. Highlights of this year’s event include Jason Latimer who will combine magic and science to raise questions about reality; the Royal Institution of Great Britain will also host a mini-science show, where Emmy award-winning STEM educator Steve Spangler will return with science experiments and STEM challenges, along with many other exciting activities!