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Research - Research Strengths


The research reputation of the School of Science is built upon the strengths of its faculty members, who are renowned experts in multiple fields of science working in world-class research facilities. They have propelled the School to the forefront of innovative science and established several internationally recognized research institutes and centers here at HKUST. 

Our faculty has an excellent track record of securing external funding, most notably the General Research Fund, Collaborative Research Fund, Area of Excellence Scheme, and Theme-based Research Scheme Program of the Research Grants Council as well as the Innovation and Technology Fund of the Innovation and Technology Commission. They have also secured funding from other sources including the National Key Basic Research Program (973 Program) .

Individual faculty members have received awards and honors for their research achievements and have been appointed as editors and members of editorial boards. Their research is continually published in top-tier scientific journals such as Cell, Science, Nature, Neuron, Nature Neuroscience, Nature Materials, Physical Review Letters, Applied Physics Letters, Journal of American Chemical Society,and Annals of Mathematics.

Thus, the faculty’s success in obtaining competitive grants, strong publication record, and flourishing international reputation attest to the quality of research conducted at the School.

Group Projects

State Key Laboratory
Theme-based Research Scheme
Areas of Excellence Scheme
National Basic Research Program (the 973 program)
State Key Laboratory

In 2010, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) of the People’s Republic of China approved the establishment of the State Key Laboratory (SKL) of Molecular Neuroscience at HKUST. The SKL of Molecular Neuroscience is the first laboratory in Hong Kong focusing on neuroscience research and the first SKL at HKUST.

The SKL’s strength lies in the multidisciplinary nature of the team, which draws on the expertise of over 20 faculty members of the School of Science. The laboratory seeks to answer fundamental research questions regarding the nervous system and has already made breakthroughs by elucidating key signal mechanisms underlying neural development and neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, congenital deaf–blindness, and neuromuscular disorders. The findings provide novel bases for the development of diagnostic tools and therapeutic agents, and have been published in prestigious journals such as Science, Cell, Nature Neuroscience, and Nature Cell Biology.

Theme-based Research Scheme

The Theme-based Research Scheme (TBRS) of the Research Grants Council aims to focus academic research efforts on high-impact topics strategically beneficial to the development of Hong Kong. The TBRS is anticipated to take research in Hong Kong SAR to new heights. The current themes are: “Promoting good health,” “Developing a sustainable environment,” and “Enhancing Hong Kong’s strategic position as a regional and international business centre.” The projects funded under the TBRS, which are selected through rigorous peer review by international experts, have demonstrated strong prospects for attaining international excellence. In the second-round exercise, the School successfully secured funding for one TBRS project.


Stem Cell Strategy for Nervous System Disorders
Project Coordinator: Prof. Nancy Ip (Life Science)

As the project coordinator, Prof. Nancy Ip leads a multidisciplinary team comprising more than 20 eminent researchers. The team successfully secured HK$60.8 million funding under the Research Grant Council’s TBRS in 2012 for a pioneering initiative in regenerative medicine entitled, “Stem Cell Strategy for Nervous System Disorders”.

In this project, the team studies the molecular mechanisms and signaling pathways that control the generation and differentiation of neuronal cells with the aim of developing new therapies to combat the devastating effects of neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric diseases. This is a significant initiative, because brain diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and clinical depression are currently incurable while existing treatments only target symptoms. Recent breakthroughs in regenerative medicine are very promising for the development of effective neural stem cell-based therapies that replace lost or damaged brain cells or induce self-repair within the brain. Thus, they offer new hope for the development of effective and targeted therapies. However, understanding the intricate interplay among signaling molecules, and intrinsic and extrinsic factors in the generation and differentiation of neural stem cells is crucial before any clinically effective therapy can be developed. Therefore, the team will perform research in the dynamic and rapidly growing field of regenerative medicine. By taking the complementary approaches of basic and translational research, the team aims to lay the essential groundwork for developing neural stem cell-based treatments for brain diseases and disorders.

Areas of Excellence Scheme

The Areas of Excellence (AoE) Scheme was launched by the University Grants Committee in 1998 to enable development in research areas for which Hong Kong has particular potential to develop a competitive edge internationally. The School has been awarded three AoE projects.

Ongoing Projects

Mechanistic Basis of Synaptic Development, Signalling and Neuro-disorders
Project Coordinator: Prof. Mingjie Zhang (Life Science)

This project aims to provide new theoretical bases for understanding an array of neuro-disorders including autism, schizophrenia, and depression while simultaneously developing medicines and therapies to treat the effects of these diseases. Although genetics studies consistently demonstrate that hundreds of genes are associated with autism spectrum disorders, our understanding of the mechanisms underlying the alterations of these genes and their causative roles is very limited. Therefore, the research team intends to systematically characterize the structure, function, and interaction networks of a set of key synaptic proteins involved in synaptic development and signaling while elucidating the impacts of mutations of such proteins on mental illnesses.

The research team will also develop peptides, peptide mimetics, and low-molecular-weight chemical compounds in order to improve our understanding of the mechanistic basis of genetic disorders and develop potential therapies against mental disorders.


Novel Wave Functional Materials for Manipulating Light and Sound
Project Coordinator: Prof. Che-ting Chan (Physics)

This project aims to create the next generation of functional materials capable of controlling the density of radiation modes in the rendering of more efficient light-emitting devices and thermal radiation control. These materials are also expected to be capable of bending and confining light and sound in unusual ways, equipping microscopes with better resolution, and facilitating the design of more efficient lighter antennae and optical chips. In addition, the team will modify the scattering and absorption properties of natural materials in order to achieve stealth, reduce noise, and increase energy-harvesting capacity. In addition, the team is aiming to increase local field strength, which will ultimately lead to ultrasensitive sensors, light manipulation of matter, and strong nonlinear effects. Through the manipulation of electromagnetic and acoustic waves, the research team will devise new functional materials including photonic/phononic crystals, metamaterials, and plasmonic structures. State-of-the-art nano-fabrication techniques will be employed in the fabrication, gauging, and verification of developed materials, which will then be applied in new devices.

Completed Project

Molecular Neuroscience: Basic Research and Drug Discovery
Project Coordinator: Prof. Nancy Ip (Life Science)

The number of people afflicted with degenerative brain diseases is increasing along with the increasing proportion of the global elderly population, because most of these diseases are age-related conditions. Age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease already represent leading causes of mortality in the elderly and incur enormous social and economic burden. However, despite their increasing incidence, there are few approved drugs in the market that effectively treat these ailments. In some cases, they are not effective in all patients or induce side-effects; in other cases, they merely alleviate the symptoms of these diseases. Hence, developing effective therapeutic drugs to treat brain diseases is of paramount importance.

The main obstacle to the development of treatments for brain diseases is the lack of a clear understanding of these diseases. The intricate and delicate biological processes within both normal and diseased brains must be understood at the molecular level, and specific molecular targets linked to different disease states have to be identified. To this end, in 2001, a cross-institutional research project led by HKUST was awarded HK$26.8 million from the University Grants Committee AoE Scheme to conduct a 5-year project entitled, “Molecular Neuroscience: Basic Research and Drug Discovery.” This AoE project aimed to advance the frontiers of neuroscience research by creating new strategies and tools that will be used to develop novel therapeutic treatments for brain diseases.

A highly talented multidisciplinary team with proven strengths in cutting-edge research was assembled, and a unique drug development approach based on traditional Chinese medicine was established. Novel drug candidates derived from traditional Chinese medicine for potential treatments for brain-related ailments were subsequently identified. Upon reassessment in 2007, the University Grants Committee commended the project, declaring it as “an impressive programme with exceptional performance” and provided the team an additional HK$27.5 million for another 3 years. With this sustained funding, the team examined the complex processes within the brain and investigated the mechanisms underlying specific neuro-related diseases. Novel traditional Chinese medicine-derived compounds were further developed for clinical applications, and potential strategic partners for their downstream commercial development were identified.
National Basic Research Program (the 973 program)

Conceived by the Chinese government in 1997 and later enacted the Ministry of Science and Technology, the National Basic Research Program, also known as the 973 Program, aims to foster basic research and address key science and technology issues concerning the country’s socioeconomic development in greater depth and breadth. The program advocates and funds multidisciplinary research encompassing agriculture, energy, information, resources, the environment, the population, health, and materials among others, which strategically impact the country’s economic, societal, and technological concerns, with the aim of providing theoretical foundations for the development of solutions. The School has been awarded three AoE projects.

Ongoing Projects

Elucidating the Molecular Mechanisms Underlying the Pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s Disease
Project Coordinator: Prof. Nancy Ip (Life Science)

The research team aims to discover new signaling mechanisms underlying synapse development and plasticity, which are mediated by various protein families (e.g., cell surface receptors, cell adhesion molecules, and synaptic scaffold proteins), and investigate whether abnormalities in these signaling pathways contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. The team also aims to elucidate the molecular basis of neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease by identifying protein kinase substrates deregulated upon disease progression. Furthermore, the team aims to identify new biomarkers and molecular targets by applying genomics and proteomics techniques using clinical samples from Alzheimer’s disease patients. The research undertaken in this collaborative effort will advance our knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease, facilitate the development of better diagnostic tools, and provide novel insights for developing effective therapies for the disease.

The team comprises experts from the HKUST Shenzhen Research Institute, PolyU Shenzhen Research Institute, Zhejiang University, Fudan University Huashan Hospital, Hangzhou Normal University, and Jinan University.


Fundamental Scientific Issues of Aggregation-induced Emission
Project Coordinator: Prof. Benzhong Tang (Chemistry)

This research group focuses on designing and synthesizing new organic and organometallic molecules with aggregation-induced emission (AIE) characteristics. Using molecular engineering techniques, they will reconstruct traditional molecules with aggregation-caused quenching (ACQ) features and impart them with AIE properties. In addition, AIE-active macromolecules with multiple dimensionality and functionality will be produced. Their methods combining modern characterization techniques, experimental investigation, and theoretical calculations will elucidate the relationships and synergism between electronic state, molecular structure, aggregation morphology, and luminescence. New AIE theories will be developed, and high-tech applications of AIE materials in chemosensors, bioprobes, and optoelectronic devices will be explored. Through the implementation of this project, the research group aims to unravel the chemical and physical mechanisms of the AIE phenomenon, establish a general design principle for AIE molecules, explore the fundamentals of molecular imaging and the electronic transition process, and develop advanced materials and prototypes. The impending success of this project will promote technological innovations in sensing and optoelectronic systems as well as meet the strategic China’s needs in the areas of specialty materials, biomedical research, environmental protection, and national security among others.

The research team consists of partners from the HKUST Shenzhen Research Institute, Institute of Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry, CAS, Beijing Institute of Technology, Wuhan University, Zhejiang University, Jilin University, and South China University of Technology.
Interdisciplinary Collaboration

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