Big attempts at micro level

While many regard studying samples under the lens of a microscope as a routine for scientists, new tools have emerged for researchers to carry out their work.

A Professor in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Hong Kong, Professor Anderson Shum Ho-cheung conducts experiments by manipulating fluids microscopically, in what is known as microfluidics.

At HKU's Microfluidics and Soft Matter Laboratory, Professor Shum has taken the lead in doing research via droplet- and jet-based platforms since returning to Hong Kong in 2010 from the US, where he obtained his doctoral degree at Harvard University. So far, he and his team have filed patents for 12 inventions and licensed 6 of them.

The study of fluids delivered via tiny microchannels have great potential for drug delivery and biochemical reactions. Traditionally, water-oil solutions are used to encapsulate active ingredients such as drugs, components for food and beverage, etc., but one problem with that is many of the sensitive but effective active ingredients are sensitive and can be easily damaged in the presence of oil. Professor Shum has addressed this problem by looking into replacing the water-oil interface with pure aqueous solutions.

“Our research group was among the first to make the move. We tried and made it possible through a lot of fundamental investigation,” said Professor Shum, who did his undergraduate study at Princeton University.

“We came up with new techniques to control the breakup of the “water-water” system into control droplets. If we can introduce a new type of processing that does not involve oil at all, then it opens up a new possibility for some drugs or ingredients that may already be developed but could not be delivered due to incompatibility with oil.”

Prospects for wide application

Professor Shum's microfluidics research can be applied across a wide spectrum of areas from clinical oncology, biological sciences, biomedical sciences to cosmetics.

Results of the microfluidics research can be applied across a wide spectrum of areas from clinical oncology, biological sciences, biomedical sciences to cosmetics. An emulsion expert, Professor Shum, has produced a new type of protein-based capsule, droplets capable of dividing into smaller droplets thereby mimicking biological cells, and electrified liquid jets with potential impact in printing and the formation of nanofibers.

His research efforts have won the support of funding agencies and industries from the biomedicine field in hopes of developing even more effective drugs.

Renowned chemical and biomedical companies are the major collaborators that his team has worked or is working with, besides Harvard University, Princeton University, and Tsinghua University.

Also pivotal is funding from the University Grants Committee’s Research Impact Fund (RIF), created to encourage research by local academics to deliver benefit for the community, as well as the government's Innovation and Technology Fund.

The above support lessens worries about continuity of research. Professor Shum acknowledges the huge commitment and lengthy time involved in progressing from preliminary research to the advanced stage of human or clinical trials, in the case of drugs and cosmetics research. “The economic climate can affect whether companies are willing to continue to invest in our endeavour. But the Innovation and Technology Fund and RIF help bridge some of the funding gaps and lower the risk to companies.”

Promoting career development

Professor Shum believed the career paths of his former students and colleagues can be diversified.

He is also more than happy to help his former students and colleagues identify career niches in the process of doing research.

He said one of his former students has set up a startup company serving the food and beverage industry applying technology derived from their research. The target is to commercialize results achieved at some stage of a lengthy explorative process.

“Each step of a research process can lead to different outcomes; if some students can identify some sparks, I encourage it. If someone believes in the value of a discovery and decides to build a career on it, I would support it," he notes.

After all, different research findings could be applied for different purposes. Neither do researchers need to limit their career choices to working solely in a laboratory.

Regardless of the time involved, Professor Shum himself is driven to find solutions for collaborators, be it industry or other parties in need.“Whenever we are able to help with what we have already developed, we will not shy away from offering help,” he says. “It is important for the society to benefit from research achievement in both the short and the long term. The society cannot afford to have all researchers focusing on only short-term outcome. And in trying to solve long-term problems, a lot of skills and techniques need to be developed. Many of the skills and techniques developed along the way can help address some short-term problems.”

Multidisciplinary pursuits

He also stresses the necessity to be open to knowledge from other disciplines. One finds computer, engineering, chemistry, physics or biology graduates working in his lab. Together they contribute different angles to the problem, or help one another have a better understanding of other fields. “Sometimes this is very helpful for finding the best solution or identifying the right question to ask,” said Professor Shum.

In the field of microfluidics, knowledge of mechanical engineering is important, for example, in developing new platforms that combine pumps, or creating high voltage power supply to charge liquids.

Professor Shum adds: “We have to understand the fundamental physics very well too in order to develop feasible, effective approaches to handle the liquids.”

The need for multidisciplinary knowledge is a trend for research in all fields, not just engineering alone. “Like sustainability, it is a problem that can never be completely solved; for example, other problems will arise once you have tackled that of water shortage. You always need to take a multidisciplinary approach in solving big problems.”

Ranked among the top 1% of the Highly Cited Researchers 2018 by Clarivate Analytics, Professor Shum has another interest - to promote a passion for innovation and technology among local youth.

He is both founding and executive committee member of the Young Academy of Sciences of Hong Kong established last year. Comprising scientists from various local universities, the academy organizes talks at secondary schools and arranges members to be mentors for students to enlighten and nurture future talents among other efforts.

Professor Anderson Shum (6th from left in the middle row) is one of the founding members of The Hong Kong Young Academy of Sciences.