Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Sham Mai Har

Sham Mai Har
The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)
Hong Kong SAR

AsianScientist (May. 17, 2021) – Before becoming neurons in the brain or immune cells in the blood, all of the human body’s specialized cells trace their origins to stem cells. As if standing at a crossroads, these cells have the near-limitless potential to develop into any type of cell. But they eventually make the decision to lock into a certain path.

Much like the stem cells she now investigates, Dr. Sham Mai Har initially studied the molecular biology of plants during her PhD, but later committed to a research career in developmental biology. Today, she serves as the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) while leading her own research team as the Choh-Ming Li Professor of Biomedical Sciences. By exploring the molecular mechanisms that govern the earliest stages of life, Sham’s extensive research has contributed to a better understanding of human congenital disorders and mammalian development.

Beyond the lab, wearing several hats has enriched Sham’s career in academia. Before joining CUHK, she rose through the ranks at the University of Hong Kong (HKU)—serving as Biochemistry Department Head, Assistant Dean (Research) all the way to Associate Vice-President (Research). In her unceasing bid to elevate science education in Hong Kong, she also designed and launched the nation’s first-ever Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences program.

In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Sham reflects on her unique scientific journey and shares her vision for transforming research at CUHK and beyond.

  • What motivated you to pursue developmental biology?
  • After my PhD, I applied for a postdoctoral position at the National Institute for Medical Research in London. The research was in a new area on mouse genomics focusing on a class of genes called homeobox genes. It was fascinating. I had worked on plants and never worked on genes like that before. That’s how I got into developmental biology.

    When one of my first mentors was dissecting a mouse embryo, she said, “Come and look at the microscope.” I went to look, and it was an embryo with a beautiful beating heart. My heart was captured then—I could see life right in front of me.

  • What research achievement are you most proud of? Why?
  • I’ve been working with two cell types called neural crest cells and placodal cells. During early development, these give rise to many tissue types but most notably, our sensory organs. In my research team, we discovered that the placodal cells represent multipotent stem cells and progenitor cells. There are many possibilities for developing therapeutic applications from an understanding of these basic cell types.

    I must also acknowledge the people who work with me because I have taken extremely talented PhD students in my lab. From their perspective, they were able to point out aspects that I wasn’t aware of. Together, we discovered something new. This is an achievement but also a journey, a very satisfying experience.

  • Can you share with us any research projects you are currently working on?
  • There’s something really exciting that is developing in the field and has a big impact—what we call single-cell technologies. With the ability to understand the molecular events inside a single cell, it allows us to look at cells and relationships of cells in a way that is unprecedented. We’re able to distinguish individual cellular properties.

    In the context of developmental biology, this means a lot because you could actually discover transitional cell stages or what we call progenitors. In analyzing biology, you have a fixed frame of looking at things at a particular time. But if you collect cells that show multiple cell stages, it allows you to link up the events in one go. My lab is using single-cell technology to look at the neural crest cells and placodal cells. It’s an exciting time.

  • You were recently appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of CUHK. What do you hope to achieve in this role over the next three years?
  • We want to maintain our excellence in research and go further. We emphasize a lot about the impact of research both in academia and our society.

    We invest time, energy and human capital on technology transfer and knowledge transfer activities. Knowledge transfer is not just about filing more patents, but rather changing the culture in the university—to steer everybody to be more aware of the societal impact.

    To have a real impact on society, the university’s role has to focus on innovation, discovery and the fundamental aspects. If you do not have the fundamental research that drives the innovation, then you have nothing to base on for the longer-term future.

    As Pro-Vice-Chancellor at CUHK, Sham is fostering a university culture that emphasizes societal impact. Photo: Sham Mai Har.

  • How has CUHK been promoting gender diversity in higher education especially throughout COVID-19?
  • In the academic setting, we go through promotion and tenure situations. During COVID-19, we put in a mechanism called deferment consideration, allowing faculty to postpone their performance review for a year. This would help in particular women scientists who have to look after their children at home.

    The consideration is not about giving them more time but empowering them so that they will be equally competitive and be able to get the tenure as they are expected to. Women scientists should be encouraged and be given opportunities so that they can develop at a similar pace.

  • As a member of the World Conference on Research Integrity Foundation, what gaps do you typically see in research practices?
  • In research, large volumes of data are generated very fast, so managing it becomes harder and harder. We need to organize our data in a system for proper storage, retrieval and sharing. If the data is not stored and managed well, you will lose the possibility of accessing useful information and valuable resources. There is a growing demand for data management, and there is a large gap in training on data management.

    Another direction is the practice of open science. When it comes to integrity, the likelihood of the data being reliable is higher, because you have to show everything—not only the analyzed outcome, but also the original raw data. These are the two major areas that are very closely linked to the responsible conduct of research.

  • Do you have any advice for aspiring researchers from Asia?
  • We need to be ambitious. We have a lot of opportunities in Asia, but we need to be brave enough to grab them. Nothing is too big for us. Just go!

    This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.

    Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Sham Mai Har.
    Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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