Nurturing a taste for biochemistry (and wine)

17 June 2020

Alex Che Chun Tsui’s (Croucher Scholarship 2017) academic talents are focused on tiny molecules implicated in taste and sensation.

But the PhD student also has an active life outside his laboratory at the University of Oxford, from his role as president of the Oxford University Hong Kong Scholars Association to applying his understanding of taste to his passion for wine.

Tsui did not plan to study abroad. As a local stream student at Diocesan Boys’ School, he was being prepared for study at a Hong Kong university, unlike those in the International Baccalaureate stream.

Almost a decade on, Tsui, 25, is three years into a five-year joint doctorate at the University of Oxford and the Scripps medical research facility in California. This follows a Bachelor of Science in biochemistry with first class honours from University College London, and an MSc in structural biology and biophysics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zürich).

At Oxford, Tsui working under the supervision of Professor Mark Sansom and in collaboration with research groups in California uses computational modelling to study very small molecules. The project uses supercomputers and has a focus on a group of cellular proteins. The work was reported last year in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

In the laboratory in San Diego, once COVID-19 travel restrictions allow, complementary work supervised by Professor Andrew Ward will use results from the computational modelling to guide lab experiments using cryo-electron microscopy, generating high-resolution images of biomolecules in real life.

“The joint programme puts me in an advantageous position – hand-in-hand collaboration between an experimental group and a computational group,” Tsui said. “We are looking at membrane proteins. These are basically found at the boundary of the cell so, in a nutshell, control what goes in and out of the cell.”

The most recent work involves a protein that functions as a sour taste receptor by allowing hydrogen ions to flow through, so is found on the tongue. While it is known to exist, how it functions is not understood. Molecular dynamics simulation, the computational technique Tsui is using, enables a better understanding of such a protein’s interaction with ions and its surrounding membrane. This understanding could have practical implications, for example helping medical scientists working on novel therapeutics for people with taste insensitivity.

At secondary school Tsui joined a mentorship programme organised by the Hong Kong Academy for Gifted Education. He was matched with a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and contributed to a research project on ultrasound technology – using tofu instead of human tissues. He also gained work experience in the pathology lab at the Hong Kong Eye Hospital.

“These experiences really sparked my first interest in studying natural sciences,” he said.

As an undergraduate student at UCL Tsui arranged summer placements at Cancer Research UK in London and as a postgraduate student at ETH Zurich he also spent two months in Tokyo at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute.

As president of the Oxford University Hong Kong Scholars Association, Tsui has organised events in Hong Kong for secondary school students to promote science as a career path.

At Oxford, Tsui is involved in editing the Phenotype, a journal written and edited by young scientists. Tsui does not yet have to decide his next career step, but is attracted to science editing. He recalled considering journalism before settling on science: “I see parallels, the pursuit of truth.”

Tsui also applies his scientific expertise to his hobby of wine tasting. He has an advanced qualification in wine, is a member of the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society, and has participated in an annual wine tasting challenge between Oxford and Cambridge. 

“I think having a scientific mind is central to my understanding of wine in general and is helpful in blind tasting,” he said. “I see it as a scientific adventure, for example, understanding how grapes interact with nature and with humans. Chemistry principles allow me to understand why some wines smell like kerosene, and if they do, that’s most likely a Riesling. I need to have a logical understanding of something, to internalise it.”

But his friends need not worry. “If I am at a restaurant with a bunch of friends, I am certain they wouldn’t enjoy a lecture about the biochemistry of grapes,” he said.

Alex Tsui is completing his joint DPhil in Biochemistry/PhD in Biology at the University of Oxford, in the UK, and Scripps Research, California, funded by the prestigious Skaggs-Oxford Scholarship and the Croucher Foundation. He completed a BSc in Biochemistry at University College London, graduating in 2015 with First Class Honours (Dean’s List). In 2017, he graduated with an MSc ETH in Biology (Structural Biology and Biophysics) from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zürich). Alex received his Croucher Scholarship in 2017.

To view Alex Tsui’s Croucher profile, please click here.