Yasine Malki at the Centre for Novostics lab, handling DNA samples for subsequent experiments.

Life in a day: laboratories of life

13 May 2024

The day begins for Yasine Malki, in his second year as a PhD student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), with a stroll along the harbour front by the Science Park.

“The morning walk to the lab is a great time to refresh and reflect on life, no matter how busy things are with research work,” he told us. Most of his days are spent at the Centre for Novostics at the Hong Kong Science Park, which is led by Professor Dennis Lo FRS, who is also Malki’s PhD supervisor. Others are spent at his research group’s lab at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sha Tin. “It’s quite a unique experience working in labs in two different areas: the Science Park is surrounded by so much science, technology, and innovation, while the lab in the hospital gives more perspective on the healthcare system.” He also finds the lab at the Centre for Novostics to be particularly inspiring. “We have a beautiful sea view on one side and a view of the future of science on the other.”

Malki’s day includes a wide range of events, including performing experiments in the lab, having frequent discussions with colleagues and professors, reading scientific literature, and writing up the results of experiments. Research work at his lab is not a solitary endeavour: “The kind of research that my group does is very interdisciplinary, and we have a very diverse pool of individuals with different specialties, including wet-lab scientists like myself, bioinformatics, as well as clinician-scientists. We also have a number of professors with different specialists too, so actually, a big part of our group’s research comes from a lot of discussion and sharing of ideas.”

The kind of research that my group does is very interdisciplinary

Malki clearly relishes having to mentor student interns who do a placement at his research group: “I love their curiosity; they’re always asking great questions.” He himself spent time in other professors’ labs as an undergraduate, so he understands their situation. He has felt very much at home in the different labs he’s worked in previously, including his research work in different institutions in Hong Kong and his various internships in the UK, US, and Shanghai. “No matter where I worked, I always found very passionate, like-minded people who were also very excited about science, who are devoted to studying interesting questions on science and health care, which focus on the greater good and a better future. I’d say that overall, when I do research, no matter where I do it, I always feel a sense of belonging.”

He can trace his own interest in his current research area even further back, though, to when he watched a talk by Professor Lo when he was a secondary school student. “I remember being so inspired and amazed by his creativity, scientific curiosity, and innovative mindset, as well as the huge potential for the field of cell-free DNA in diagnostics and diseases,” Malki told us. He was also drawn towards biomedicine by the development of novel, cutting-edge technologies in the field. “I was particularly excited when I learnt techniques such as CRIPSR-Cas9 genomic editing and reprogramming cells using induced pluripotent stem cell technology, and I am currently learning so much from the latest sequencing technologies. Technologies like these captivate my interest in biomedical science, particularly in the area of precision medicine and diagnostics.”

Technologies like these captivate my interest in biomedical science, particularly in the area of precision medicine and diagnostics.

Malki is the holder of a   which was established to commemorate Lord Butterfield of Stechford, a former Croucher Trustee who dedicated his life to medical research and education. It’s awarded to the most outstanding candidate in the areas of medical and biological sciences. “It’s truly an amazing honour to receive the Butterfield Croucher Award. I’m grateful to the Croucher Foundation for the many opportunities that this studentship will provide for my learning and research. The first thing I did when I was awarded it was to read up about Lord Butterfield’s story. And from what I understood of his work, he basically refined several techniques for large-scale screening for diabetes when it wasn’t as well recognised as the health threat we know of today,” Malki told us. “Learning from his life story, this studentship encourages me to continue to be passionate about research, to really think more deeply about current issues and questions we have in medicine, healthcare, and science, and to try to envision ways to conduct research which could address them.”

In addition, Malki has received mentorship from a former Butterfield Award winner (2012), Professor Peter Cheung, an expert in virology who is now working in the same department at CUHK. He was also inspired by the work of the 2008 Butterfield Award winner, Professor Alan Siu Lun Wong of the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. “Seeing previous Butterfield Croucher awardees accomplish so much in their respective fields encourages me to strive to do well in my research. I also aspire to be a professor one day with a focus on translational and biomedical research.”

Given his previous experience working in labs, we asked him whether there had been any surprises for him when he started his PhD.

“Actually, what came as a surprise is the diversity of skills you need to do well in research,” he said. “Of course, you need strong technical skills to perform research and troubleshooting and a good grasp of the scientific method, but you also need good communication skills to network with other researchers and scientists. And also, with the internship students that I mentioned earlier, you need to be able to support them and capture their interest. Having good leadership skills and communication abilities is an important part of science.”

And finally, what advice would he have for anyone thinking of following in his footsteps into the field?

“First of all, I’d recommend they try to experience scientific research. They should contact professors whose work interests them and offer to help or shadow in the lab to get a feel for science in action. I think it’s very important to have a broad understanding of the kinds of questions, techniques, and approaches that scientists in a certain area are interested in. And the second thing would be to watch seminars, symposiums, and lectures from professors, whether in person or online. You get to hear the highlights of their work and sense their excitement and passion for the subject. It’s important to get out there and be inspired.”

Yasine Malki is the recipient of a 2022 Croucher Butterfield Scholarship. To view his Croucher profile click here.