‘My students are my teachers and my driving force’ — 135 Years of Mentor-Mentee Relationships at HKUMed

Dr Wong and Vincent stand in a laboratory holding a framed sketch of their colleagues

HKUMed’s laboratories serve as both venues for new scientific discoveries and settings for researchers to support and inspire the next generation of scientists. In turn, these scientists are often motivated by their students, forming fruitful mentor-mentee bonds that propel their work.

As we mark the Faculty’s 135th anniversary, we invited Dr Carmen Wong, Associate Professor, Department of Pathology, School of Clinical Medicine, and her mentee Vincent Yuen, who she describes as her “senior apprentice” to tell us about their working relationship.

Dr Wong’s research focuses on new drug targets and pathogenesis of liver cancer and she started her own laboratory in 2015. Vincent, a science graduate, joined Dr Wong’s lab five years ago as a research assistant and later decided to pursue his PhD studies with her.

What were your first impressions of one another?

Dr Wong: His resume caught my eye. In the interview, he showed that he is very positive and enthusiastic about science. I further asked him some technical questions to test his knowledge and ability. From his answers, I could see that he is very careful and detail-oriented which are important qualities of a good scientist.

Vincent: She is young, vibrant, and approachable, very unlike my impression of professors. When she entered the lab, everyone welcomed her warmly and asked if she was about to do experiments. I was surprised that a Principal Investigator would work alongside students in the lab. I later learnt she makes the effort to come to the lab every day, despite it being far away from her office at Queen Mary Hospital. Other team members told me that Carmen wants to make herself available for discussions with her students.

Dr Wong and Vincent sit looking at papers on a desk
Dr Wong encouraged Vincent to pursue research

Have you shared any memorable moments?

Dr Wong: Vincent is very talented and has a high level of perception and a strong sense for science. I always encouraged him to pursue research. He was not very confident and had some hesitations. One night, I was surprised by his text message telling me that he had decided to pursue a PhD with me. I was excited for the whole night as I was truly overjoyed that I had made a positive influence on a talented young person who might be able to contribute to the research community in the future.

Vincent often reminds me of myself when I was a junior student, full of curiosity but doubts and uncertainties as well. I was not so confident about myself. But nothing can arouse my interest as much as science. Both of us are very focused and dedicated to research, pursuing science out of pure curiosity with no distractions.

Vincent: We were completing an experiment one afternoon on a public holiday. After that, I asked Carmen to discuss a recently published article on a new approach to study cancer immunology. She was a mixture of patience and excitement as she sat next to me discussing the article with me extensively, just like my peer. She taught me that science is something we learn and explore together no matter whether you are a student or a teacher.

Dr Wong and Vincent look out from a window in a door. The phrase “Do what you love, love what you do” on the door
Vincent says good communication allows a team to reach its goals more quickly

What’s something you’ve taught one another and how do you define a mentor’s influence?

Vincent: Carmen changed the way I view scientific research. Previously, I felt science was something that was unreachable. When people think of scientists, their first impression would be geniuses like Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. But scientists are just people who simply have more curiosity and determination. This realisation encouraged me to pursue research.

Dr Wong: Students come to my lab to learn. It is really not about how good a student is when he is new to the lab, but how capable he becomes when he graduates. All students are unique and I tailor my mentoring approach to each of them. All they need is a passion for research. Even if you’re only starting out, as long as you have the heart to learn and work hard, you will do well.

My goal is to help students to shine. I hope they can feel a sense of accomplishment and be happy on their research paths, contribute their knowledge to scientific research and make it a lifelong career. Do what you love, love what you do.

How do you maintain your mentor-mentee bond?

Dr Wong: Trust is important. When I discuss research with him, the discussions are in-depth and designed to challenge our thinking. Trust also means believing he is up to the task, letting him develop his strengths, and giving him a chance to take the lead.

Vincent: Communication is key. Everyone’s expectations are different, so the more you communicate, the sooner you can reach consensus and your goal. I am grateful to Carmen for allowing me to study in this lab. I have learnt a lot from her over the past five years. I didn’t expect to stay so long, but I am living the life I dreamt of and every day I feel motivated to make some discoveries.

Dr Wong: I am really grateful for Vincent and my other students who let me understand myself better. At the same time, I’ve learnt how to create the best atmosphere for students, because as a supervisor, I am also learning along the way. My students are my teachers and my driving force.

Scientific research is not an easy profession, but my students constantly remind me why I devoted myself to this career. Sometimes I feel frustrated, but then I see them passionately and happily pursuing research, striving hard, which reminds me to not dwell on the unpleasant side of things.

Dr Carmen Wong and Vincent stand in a laboratory with shelves full of scientific instruments and vessels
Dr Wong ensures she makes time to meet her students regularly

What new challenges would you like to take on together?

In unison: A training course overseas.

Dr Wong: I’d like for us to be students together. Now with administrative work, I have less time with students in the lab. But I am also a member of the lab and I want to join them in their work too.

Vincent: Studying new technologies and bringing those back to the lab. I think that would be really interesting.

Dr Wong: Maybe in the future when Vincent becomes a principal investigator, I can visit his lab and learn from his team.

A group photo taken on a hiking trip
The pair liken scientific research to hiking

Dr Wong: And he’s a hiking fan, so I hope he can take me and my team on a difficult hike, and then enjoy the scenery.

Vincent: It doesn’t have to be far. It would be a good team-building activity to hike to The Peak to see the sunset.

In unison: Hiking is a lot like research. If you hike alone you can walk fast, but if you hike as a group and support one another, you can walk further. That’s also what we want to achieve.

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