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Once, Always | Exploring the Intricacies of Biochemistry 

Hyung Seok Jin (SCIS Hongqiao Class of 2019), and his family, first arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 2010, in what was his first international living abroad experience. What started as a difficult first few months, quickly turned into a fantastic experience as he was warmly embraced by the SCIS community. Now pursuing a degree in Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, Hyung recalls the spark that started it all inside the science classrooms of SCIS.

Welcome to Once, Always,  a series celebrating the wonderful stories from former students, parents, and staff that all share something in common - their time at SCIS.  #OnceADragonAlwaysADragon

 

What are you currently up to?

I am currently studying Natural Sciences (Biological) at Downing College, the University of Cambridge. One interesting feature of my course is that my major is decided in the third year, so I had the opportunity to learn everything and choose what I wanted to study later on. Although my primary strength was Mathematics and Chemistry, I decided to study Biochemistry because many biological enigmas can be tackled through high-throughput technology. 

Downing College building at the University of Cambridge

 

Interesting, can you explain further what the field of Biochemistry entails?

 

Biochemistry is a content-heavy field, and even the Biochemistry Department admits this:

“[Lecturers] and everybody else in the Department are aware that the literature of Biochemistry is so large that nobody can effectively cover the whole subject”.

Thus, one often misunderstands that biochemistry is about memorising endless information. However, the goal of biochemistry is not to memorise but to investigate biological processes at the molecular level.

 Completing our understanding of a biological process is like completing a set of puzzles. When you first start to match a puzzle, the process is more of trial-and-error, randomly matching some pieces on the edge. Puzzle matching gets more interesting at the later stage, where the glimpse of the image starts to be unravelled. At this point, you need to put some thoughts to envision the complete picture to put the pieces together. The end is meaningful – you are enthralled to finalise pieces together – but it is timid because it is more of tidying up and happily placing the last piece.

Now, biochemistry is at the intermediate stage of puzzle matching: exploring the unknown. For example, after US President Richard Nixon signed the “war on cancer,” the survival rates have been improved significantly, and many general biological principles about cancer cells and normal cells have been revealed. As such, over the last century, biochemists had set the scene for the current biologist to explore. New revolutionising technology also enables this puzzle matching possible. First, high-throughput technology identifies what to investigate. Biochemists can now rely more on quantitative data and systematic procedures rather than on luck. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accidentally contaminating the sample and won the Nobel prize in 1945, but were penicillin not discovered today, high-throughput technology would have identified penicillin as the putative antibiotics to test.

 This does not mean overwhelmingly powerful technology has substituted the work of biochemists. A more correct interpretation would be that revolutionising technology now allows biochemists to investigate complex biological processes that could not be explored in the past. For example, analysing proteins structure by X-ray crystallography is a highly complicated and time-consuming process, and it was often a Ph.D. project (3-5 years). Now, highly revolutionary technology called cryo-EM allows scientists to investigate protein structure rapidly within weeks if not hours. This generated a large structural database, and many researchers now dare to use the dataset to explore and imagine the complete puzzle.

SCIS alumnus wearing gown for birthday formal

 

What inspired you to pursue an educational degree in Biochemistry?

 

To put it simply, I decided to study biochemistry because many biological questions that could not be even attempted in the past can be explored. The controversial statement by Ernst Rutherford - 'All the science is either physics or stamp collecting' – had been accepted, but it seems to fail to withstand the test of time.

 

So where did it all begin, how did you "find" your passion?

I believe one never knows what to do until one actually does it. My interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects has been nurtured because I was exposed to an environment where I could explore and think more. I want to express my sincere gratitude to Ms. Punter (Chemistry), Ms. Rielly (Biology), and Dr. Valerio (Mathematics) because they guided me on what to explore further. Without them, I would have aimlessly wandered around and could not find my passion.

A problem I see for Grade ten students is that they are often unsure of which IB subjects to select for the last two years of upper school. My advice is to use your time in grade ten as an opportunity to explore your passion. Watch Youtube videos, read articles and books, or even take some courses from Coursera! 

SCIS alumnus sprayed with champagne, eggs, flour and shaving cream

Hyung sprayed with eggs, flour, and shaving cream after finishing exams as is tradition.

 

Looking back, what were some of your fondest memories of SCIS?

 

I still remember the “Egg drop challenge” when I was in 5th grade. This challenge aimed to safely land an egg dropped from the music room (I vaguely remember this was the 5th floor?). My friends tried elegant designs such as parachutes, but they all failed. I initially tried parachutes, but I was not smart enough to design one that could be successful. I wrapped an egg around thick sponges, and it was successful. I learned that some simple realistic solutions can be more powerful than meticulously designed work. SCIS taught me something that I could not learn from textbooks.

 

Knowing what you now know, what advice would you give to your younger self?

I would try to learn how to argue. The skills that I lack are how to challenge others’ ideas regardless of reputation or title and express an idea clearly. Before the matriculation to Cambridge, I expected a high degree of discipline and authority. However, I was surprised to see undergraduates calling professors by their first names. It is not uncommon to see undergraduate students challenging and debating with renowned professors. I soon realised that what enables Cambridge researchers to get many Nobel prizes is not the long tradition, but the ambiance that encourages expressing one’s view freely. When I was a student in SCIS, I was passive in terms of learning, absolutely trusting IB textbooks or class notes although they do not intuitively or logically make sense. I would more actively participate in group discussions and learn how not to accept a contrasting view.

 

Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm and passion for the sciences Hyung Seok, and we wish you the best for what the future will bring!

SCIS. Once a Dragon, Always a Dragon.

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