The Laboratory for Synthetic Chemistry and Chemical Biology, directed by Professor Che Chi-ming, is one of the six research laboratories established under the Health@InnoHK cluster with a key mission to make advanced cancer a treatable chronic disease, by developing innovative, leading-edge interdisciplinary research that connects chemistry, molecular biology and clinical oncology.
Research and Innovation
Raising the Bar
The University has consistently produced impactful research at the local and international levels, but to achieve true excellence, we must up our game. Constrained in the past by limited resources and facilities, we now are in the fortunate position of having wider support and opportunities at a time when our ambitions are growing. The University has embarked on programmes to develop new cutting-edge facilities, attract the cream of global talent, and capitalise on the opportunities presented in the Greater Bay Area (GBA). Together, these initiatives will solidify our position as a global hub of innovative research and significantly heighten our impact around the world.
A Solid Foundation: Successes in 2020–21
HKU’s strong performance in local research funding and assessment exercises has demonstrated yet again that this is the best university in Hong Kong and a leading university in the region and the world. The Research Grants Council’s (RGC) Research Assessment Exercise 2020, for example, found 75% of our research submissions to be world-leading or internationally excellent. This compares with about 50% in the previous exercise in 2014, showing how well we are progressing. HKU also had the highest proportion of research scoring 4 stars (i.e., world-leading) among all Hong Kong universities and was rated best in six of 13 broad panel areas in which we were assessed: biology, health sciences, computer science and information technology, law, humanities, and education.
The University also received the largest share of most public funding exercises, both in terms of amount awarded and number of funded projects. Under the General Research Fund, we received a total of HK$178 million (excluding on-costs) for 221 approved projects, and under the Early Career Scheme we received HK$32 million (excluding on-costs) for 43 projects. HKU scholars lead three of eight projects awarded in the 11th round of the Theme-based Research Scheme and participate in three others, and they lead a new Area of Excellence project awarded HK$92 million (including on-costs). Our scholars also performed strongly in the Humanities and Social Sciences Prestigious Fellowship Scheme (securing three of nine projects awarded), the Collaborative Research Fund (CRF) (nine of 21 group research projects) and the Research Impact Fund (six of 13 projects).
Added to that list of achievements is our impressive performance in the government-funded InnoHK programme, where we lead nine research laboratories that will collectively receive more than HK$3 billion over five years, the largest share. Our COVID-19 research has also continued to be world-leading and received HK$94 million under the One-off CRF Coronavirus Disease and Novel Infectious Disease Research Exercise, the most among local institutions.
People Power: The Source of Our Strength
Our funding successes are not possible without a large cohort of high-quality researchers. In 2020–21, a number of HKU scholars were honoured with international and national recognition of their excellence. Thirty-one academics were named to Clarivate’s 2021 Highly Cited Researchers List – more than double the previous year when we had 13 – for producing multiple research papers that have been highly-cited by their peers. Our scholars also received two Future Science Prizes (China’s ‘Nobel’ equivalent), two John Dirks Canada Gairdner Awards, the American Chemical Society National Award, and the ASHRAE Holladay Distinguished Fellow Award, among other international honours. Young scholars received two Xplorer Prizes and nine Excellent Young Scientist awards from Mainland China. Locally, HKU researchers received five RGC Senior Research Fellow and Research Fellow scheme awards, a Croucher Senior Research Fellowship and a Croucher Senior Medical Research Fellowship. These honours recognise that our scholars are producing globally important research.
To sustain our success and advance further, we cannot sit still. We need to bring in additional top-flight talent to produce even more impactful research and lift the bar for everyone. The HKU Global Professoriate Recruitment Campaign has started to recruit 100 world-class scholars in emerging fields with potential for scientific and scholarly breakthroughs. We also did well in the first round of the government’s Global STEM Professorship Scheme, which is funded separately, securing 15 of the 46 initial positions available.
Rising talents are also on our radar. In 2020–21, we established the 100 Outstanding Young Professorships programme valued at HK$10 million each, alongside a recent scheme to offer 100 Presidential PhD Scholarships to promising young scholars.
Professor Kevin Tsia (right) of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering introducing to the Chief Executive Mrs Carrie Lam (centre) the pioneering homebuilt ultrafast optical microscope system at the Photonic Systems Research Laboratory during her visit to HKU in August 2021.
Enlarging Our Footprint
Great research talent needs a great environment to flourish, which means access to frontier technology, large computing capacity, and space for large-scale projects. HKU is a small campus, but we are undergoing a historic expansion of our research facilities both in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
On our main campus, a new centrepiece will be the Tech Landmark, a futuristic development of four towers housing 10 new institutes dedicated to strategic research and emerging fields. One of these, the Institute of Data Science, has already secured HK$150 million in funding, begun recruiting staff and is operating out of revamped space on the main campus. Nearly every faculty will be involved in the Institute, given the importance of data and AI to research today. Most of the other institutes will be up and running when the Tech Landmark is completed in 2024. Apart from this project, the medical school is also modernising and growing its campus and facilities to meet both its research and teaching demands.
The University is excited about the prospect of having a stronger foothold in the Greater Bay Area (GBA), with the Memorandum of Understanding announced in summer 2021 to establish its Shenzhen campus. The new campus will initially house scholars in such fields as science, engineering, architecture, business and life sciences, and make it easier for our researchers to conduct large-scale research, find industry collaborators and access new sources of funding. HKU researchers have done exceptional work over the years within the limited confines of Hong Kong, but now their horizons can broaden to the open spaces that await them in the GBA.
Mr Zheng Hongbo (left, seated), Vice Mayor of Shenzhen, and Professor Gong Peng (right, seated), HKU’s Vice-President and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic Development) representing the Shenzhen Municipal People’s Government and HKU respectively in the Memorandum of Understanding signing to establish an HKU campus in Shenzhen.
funding from UGC and RGC
funding from other sources
for new research projects in 2020–21.
Theme-based Research Scheme projects
of research world-leading or internationally excellent
as assessed in the RGC’s Research Assessment Exercise 2020.
A big leap in
the number of
Highly Cited Researchers
Highly cited researchers are scholars who have produced multiple papers that are influential and rank in the top 1% in terms of citations for their field. In 2021, Clarivate named 31 HKU academics to this prestigious list, up from 13 in 2020. Our expertise in infectious diseases has helped make our research especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we also saw increases in the number of engineering and science scholars included.
Economics and Business
Environment and Ecology; Microbiology
InnoHK is a major initiative of the Hong Kong Government to develop the city as a hub for global research and innovation. In October 2021, it was formally announced that HKU has been awarded nine InnoHK research laboratories, the most among local universities – six Health@InnoHK labs on healthcare technologies and three AIR@InnoHK labs on artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. The labs will collectively receive more than HK$3 billion in funding over five years.
Our AIR@InnoHK Labs
Creating New Materials for Renewable Energy:
Hong Kong Quantum AI Lab
Using big data and machine learning, computational science and experimental research, this centre will develop software tools that can predict the precise properties of materials used in organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) and solid-state lithium-ion batteries, which can readily be extended to solar cells, fuel cells, related catalysts and other chemical research. The results will help widen the use of renewable energy and create new-generation materials for OLED. The centre’s director is Professor Chen Guanhua in the Department of Chemistry, who is collaborating with the California Institute of Technology.
Professor Chen Guanhua
Department of Chemistry
Realising Precision Medicine and Improving Global Health:
Laboratory of Data Discovery for Health
Advanced AI applications will be used to realise precision medicine and greater global health. Under the directorship of the Dean of Medicine, Professor Gabriel Leung, Helen and Francis Zimmern Professor in Population Health, this centre will work with massive unique data resources and focus on the mitigation of vaccine hesitancy; next-generation immune-based technologies to detect infectious disease epidemics and understand their dynamics; global influenza monitoring and prediction; pathogen discovery; and AI-driven disease treatment outcome prediction, among other outcomes. Collaborators include the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University College London and the University of Sydney.
Managing Director and Chief Scientific Officer
Professor Gabriel Leung
Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine
AI and Robots that Take Garment Industry to New Heights:
Centre for Transformative Garment Production
AI and robotics-based solutions will be applied to enhance the operations and output of the garment sector, such as enhanced sewing capabilities, fabric handling and manufacturing; shorter product development cycles; improved efficiency; and better worker safety. A platform will be established for exchanges between industry, universities and society to ensure the research is impactful. The centre is directed by Professor Norman C Tien, Taikoo Professor of Engineering, who is collaborating with Tohoku University.
Professor Norman C Tien
Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering
Our Health@InnoHK Labs
Treating Cancer as a Chronic Disease:
Laboratory for Synthetic Chemistry and Chemical Biology
An important mission of this centre, directed by Professor Che Chi-ming, Zhou Guangzhao Professor in Natural Sciences, is to develop new anti-cancer medicines with fewer side effects so that advanced metastatic cancers can be treated as a chronic disease and the survival outcome of cancer patients can be improved. By connecting chemistry, molecular biology and clinical oncology, Professor Che and his partners will develop new drugs and biomedical diagnostics, such as targeted chemotherapeutic agents that selectively target cancer cells, and evaluate the detailed molecular mechanisms of traditional Chinese medicine. Imperial College London and Peking University are collaborators.
Professor Che Chi-ming
Department of Chemistry
New Drugs and Treatments against Hard-to-Treat Cancers in Asia:
Centre for Oncology and Immunology
Digestive malignancies as well as liver cancer, leukaemia and lymphoma are major health burdens in Asian countries. This R&D centre, co-led by Professor Mak Tak-wah and Professor Leung Suet-yi, Y M Kan Professor in Natural Sciences, in the Department of Pathology, will apply biotechnology to develop new therapies against hard-to-treat cancers. They will also apply novel functional screens and genomic and proteomic techniques to identify new druggable targets for cancer drug development.
Professor Mak Tak-wah and
Professor Leung Suet-yi
Department of Pathology
New Medicines and Treatments Using Stem Cells:
Centre for Translational Stem Biology
Professor Pengtao Liu of the School of Biomedical Sciences has developed world-leading patented technology that can establish expanded potential stem cells from multiple animal species. He will focus on translating that capability into developing new technologies, intellectual properties and products for use in regenerative medicine, organ transplantation and genomic medicine. There is also potential to apply his techniques to biotechnological and agricultural uses.
Professor Pengtao Liu
School of Biomedical Sciences
Better Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention:
Advanced Biomedical Instrumentation Centre
Biomedical instrumentation has great potential for more accurate clinical diagnosis and treatment, earlier intervention, and disease prevention. Centre director Professor Anderson Shum of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, working in collaboration with the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, will accelerate the translation of these instruments into real-world solutions, such as developing affordable screening tests, personalised diagnostics, strategic therapeutic approaches for new treatments, and advanced medical device components.
Professor Anderson Shum
Department of Mechanical Engineering
Immune Report Card and a Focus on Emerging Viruses :
Centre for Immunology & Infection
Baseline immune response profiles differ among healthy individuals. This centre aims to define the genetic and environmental factors underlying these differences which may in turn lead to a different response to vaccines or risk to diseases. Such understanding will help the development of ‘precision medicine’ at the population level. The centre also aims to find new solutions for public health challenges such as emerging infectious diseases. Co-led by Professor Malik Peiris, Tam Wah-Ching Professor in Medical Science, of the School of Public Health and Professor Roberto Bruzzone of the HKU-Pasteur Research Pole, the centre will refine understanding of immune responses in healthy Asian communities leading to an individualised ‘Immune Report Card’; develop new vaccine platforms for influenza; investigate mosquito-borne viruses; and develop platform technologies for responding to lethal respiratory virus infections. The Institut Pasteur in Paris is a collaborator.
Professor Malik Peiris
School of Public Health
Professor Roberto Bruzzone
HKU-Pasteur Research Pole
Vaccine Platform for Respiratory and Other Viruses :
Centre for Virology, Vaccinology and Therapeutics
New vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases will be developed by researchers under the leadership of Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, Henry Fok Professor in Infectious Diseases. A platform will be developed to generate vaccines against respiratory viruses such as influenza and COVID-19; engineer novel antibodies to prevent and treat HIV and respiratory viruses; create host-target broad-spectrum antivirals; and develop new virus-targeting antivirals. Columbia University and Imperial College London are collaborators.
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung
Department of Microbiology
Honours for Our Scholars
Established HKU researchers received a number of international awards during the year, while young up-and-coming academics were recognised in prestigious national funding exercises.
Professor Malik Peiris, Chair of Virology, was jointly awarded major international prizes twice during the year. He and Professor Guan Yi, Daniel CK Yu Professor in Virology and Chair of Emerging Viral Diseases, received the 2021 John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award, the first HKUMed laureates of this prestigious award, for their significant contributions to the control of zoonotic influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Meanwhile, Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, Chair of Infectious Diseases and Professor Peiris were jointly awarded China’s ‘Nobel’ prize, the 2021 Future Science Prize in life sciences, which recognises outstanding scholars in Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. They were honoured for their discoveries related to SARS and its zoonotic origin, which have helped combat COVID-19 and other emerging infectious diseases.
Professor Malik Peiris
Professor Guan Yi
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung
Professor Vivian Yam Wing-wah, Philip Wong Wilson Wong Professor in Chemistry and Energy and Chair of Chemistry, received the American Chemical Society (ACS) National Award – the 2022 Josef Michl ACS Award in Photochemistry, in recognition of her exceptional accomplishments in fundamental research in photochemistry. She was cited for her work in inorganic / organometallic photochemistry through innovative design of chromophoric / luminescent metal complexes and their supramolecular assemblies for advancing OLED, sensing and solar energy research. The award is presented biennially to researchers who have made outstanding contributions in fundamental photochemistry.
HKU’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Xiang Zhang, Chair of Physics and Engineering, was honoured by the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) with the 2021 SPIE Mozi Award for his pioneering work in optical physics research. He has made seminal, fundamental contributions on metamaterials, super-imaging lenses, nano lasers and 2D materials, and made an experimental demonstration of the first optical super lens, which opened a new field of study.
Professor Li Yuguo, Chair Professor of Building Environment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, was recipient of the Louise and Bill Holladay Distinguished Fellow Award 2021 of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), in recognition of his research on the environmental transmission of diseases, stretching back nearly two decades. Recently, Professor Li applied his expertise to show how ventilation played a role in more than 15 major COVID-19 outbreaks in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Japan.
Professor Alfonso HW Ngan, Kingboard Professor in Materials Engineering and Chair of Materials Science and Engineering of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, was the only Asian named International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering this year. Professor Ngan is a world-leading expert on the microstructural basis of material strength, particularly for micro-sized materials, and he leads a nanomechanics characterisation laboratory at HKU.
Young academics are garnering national recognition for their groundbreaking work. Chief among them are Professor Yao Wang, Chair of Physics, and Professor Huang Mingxin of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who were both winners of the 2021 Xplorer Prize, which honours the top 50 scientists under 45 in China. Professor Yao is also leading a recently awarded HK$80 million Area of Excellence (AoE) grant for research on two-dimensional materials, and was named among the world’s highly cited researchers in his field in consecutive years from 2018 to 2021 by Clarivate. Professor Huang has made breakthroughs in developing advanced steels and alloys, and lightweight materials for automotive applications.
Nine young HKU scientists were awarded under China’s Excellent Young Scientists Fund 2021, the most among institutions in Hong Kong and Macau. An award of RMB1.6 million (HK$1.92 million) over a maximum of three years is given to each recipient – male scientists must be aged under 38 and female scientists aged under 40. HKU’s recipients included: