In Focus - Issue 35 (Spring 2023)

For Prof. Sun, selected to receive National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) Excellent Young Scientist funding in , it is the discovery of the new that captivates him, with his own career journey echoing this passion for exploration. From his initial interest in chemistry, he moved on to chemical engineering. He is now devising novel synthetic biology approaches to make and transform materials and tools with “living” features. Prof. Sun’s drug delivery advances got underway with a protein-based stimuli-responsive smart hydrogel. This had the potential not only for drug delivery and stem cell therapy, but also to control the time and manner of delivery inside the body due to its light-sensing capability. The creation of entirely protein-based hydrogels represented a pioneering way to design bioactive materials with precise control of their properties. The invention then inspired three HKUST postgraduates to form biotechnology start-up, SPES Tech, to take this forward. The company, established in , saw its flagship hydrogel “LitGel” move to commercialization in late . Recently, through a combination of materials science, synthetic biology, and genetic engineering, Prof. Sun has been seeking to utilize the possibilities of the steel-like protein ber created by spiders for further therapeutic pathways. His lab is already capable of producing a spider’s web and his researchers are working on protein engineering strategies to functionalize spider silk material. A provisional patent in the US has also been led. Prof. Sun’s love of the original and unfamiliar – and the learning that takes place to comprehend them – began at an early age. Born in the late s and growing up in the countryside of Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, he was a voracious reader from a young age, keeping his parents busy looking for di erent materials for him to devour. He tackled books on history, science, novels, or “anything printed, unselectively”, he said. The breadth of knowledge gained got Prof. Sun o to a good start at school. He became a top student, winning multiple provincial competitions in physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Later, he earned a place at Suzhou Experimental High School, going on to attain full marks for chemistry in China’s highly competitive National College Entrance Examination. In , he enrolled as a chemistry undergraduate at prestigious Peking University, where he continued to win awards. At Peking U, the youthful mental explorer also began to investigate the world of research, joining a major organic chemistry project as a second-year undergraduate and working for two years alongside postgraduates in the lab to synthesize a natural organic compound useful for medical treatment. He went on to pursue a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Chicago under supervisor Prof. HE Chuan in , followed by postdoctoral studies in chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from , under Prof. Frances H. ARNOLD, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. During his time in the US, Prof. Sun not only expanded his understanding of the world through his studies but via the diverse people he met, seeking out friends from all walks of life and countries, sharing knowledge, and in turn gaining inspiration. It was at Caltech, he realized the crucial role of versatility for researchers and academics, including the ability to listen to others and keep an open mind to achieve this. He quotes the Confucian saying, “君子不器”, which stresses the importance of embracing new knowledge and always being prepared for change. “Sometimes good ideas need a spark. This may come from your students or colleagues next door. An inclusive and intellectual culture is very important” 21 IN FOCUS