Sihong Chen - Engineer, industrial consultant and now researcher

Sihong Chen got her BSc degree in biochemistry from Shandong University, one of Photo of Sihong Chenthe leading universities in China. Subsequently, she worked in a number of roles at Wuhan Institute of Product Quality Inspection and Supervision, one of China’s ten key inspection centres, which has similar responsibilities and functions to those of the FDA. She is currently in the third year of her PhD under the supervision of CSCB investigator Professor Paul Engel, at the UCD Conway Institute. Her research is in the field of molecular evolution, where scientists have mimicked evolution in the natural world to create novel robust enzymes. These enzymes are widely used in the food and pharmaceutical industries and in diagnostics for the production of artificial sweeteners, non-natural amino acids for drug precursors and diagnostic kits in hospitals, respectively.

Tell us about your background before coming to UCD

"Before my PhD, I worked for several years in China in a variety of roles including an engineer responsible for guaranteeing food safety and health, with a focus on the inspection of bacteria and pathogens in food. I was also involved in providing consultancy to food and beverage manufacturing companies to tackle quality problems and improve their production processes. Another important area of my career involved conducting cooperative research with relevant research institutes and universities.”

What was your motivation for starting a PhD?

"I chose to do a PhD in biochemistry as it allows me to combine my great interest in science with my passion for learning and enthusiasm for discovery! I am fascinated by my PhD project which has extensive industrial applications. Working with my supervisor, Professor Paul Engel, is a fantastic opportunity as he is one of the leading researchers in this field.”

What skills do you use as a researcher?

"My PhD study has provided me with the ability to critically evaluate new ideas, absorb new knowledge, master biochemical techniques and think analytically about the world around me. You gain so many different skills not only of research but also communication, by writing scientific papers and presenting work at group meetings and conferences.”

What are the most rewarding or exciting aspects of your work?

"One of the things I love most about my job is being able to make breakthroughs in the research and then share the results by writing scientific papers. As a scientist, I also have the opportunity to continually learn and travel. Science really is a global industry and as such, I often find myself working and communicating with people all over the world. Looking back, it is amazing to think that so many of the opportunities I have encountered so far have resulted from choosing science and biochemistry as a career!”

What led you to science?

"I was always fascinated by the world around me and saw science as mysterious and powerful. In high school, I realised that I had a real passion for science and started to consider entering science as a career. There are still many questions today that we don’t have the answers for e.g., scientists have solved the DNA sequence of the human gene, but 50% of genes’ functions are still unknown. Diseases such as cancer and HIV are much better understood, still we don’t know how to cure them. These questions are still waiting for future scientists to answer.”

How would you describe your field of science?

"Biochemistry is the study of the molecular basis for life. Through biochemistry, the chemical mechanisms of many central processes of life are now well understood. Biochemistry also profoundly influences medicine; the rapid development of concepts and techniques in recent years has enabled us to tackle some of the most challenging and fundamental problems in medicine.”

How do you spend a typical day?

"My daily routine sees me in the lab mutating genes, running gels, incubating cells, purifying proteins, doing kinetics, reading papers, presenting results or going to seminars at the Conway Institute and the CSCB. I also supervise undergraduate student experiments and find time to exercise in the gym! Occasionally, if a long experiment requires it, I work on the weekend.”

What do you do when you get away from the lab?

"My main sources of relaxation are sports and music. I also enjoy reading, doing crossword puzzles, travelling and outdoor activities. And of course, I love spending time with my family and friends.”

What do you hope to do when you finish?

"Progress in the life sciences and biotechnology is opening the way for groundbreaking discoveries and applications in a wide range of fields, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and environmental protection. The exciting advances are helping to develop new knowledge-producing areas at the crossroads of other scientific disciplines, with potentially profound social and economic impacts. I have been enjoying and contributing to this process through my research project. And I hope that I will further go down this road after I finish the PhD, either in an academic or in an industrial context."

How would you encourage a secondary school pupil who is considering a career in science?

"Everything in our world is linked to science and technology, and by choosing science, you give yourself the opportunity not only to understand how things in the world work, but also to be able to make your own contribution to society. If you are curious about the world around you, and are looking for an exciting career path with opportunities that you may never have considered, then I would definitely suggest choosing science and biochemistry in particular!”