Interview with Associate Professor Andrew Hutchins from the Biology Department
– Can you tell us about your academic and professional background? Where did you work, research and teach before?
I am originally from the UK, but I’ve been living in Asia for most of my adult life. I did my PhD at the John Innes Centre (a research centre attached to the University of East Anglia), originally in plant sciences. After my PhD I was still a relatively young man, and I still had most of my hair. I guess I wanted some adventure, although the real reasons I have long forgotten, so I took a slowboat to Singapore (actually a plane), and abandoned plants to work on the (then new) field of embryonic stem cells. Eventually tiring from the extreme heat in Singapore, I again swapped research fields, and countries, as I moved to Japan to work on the immune system. Finally, I came to China, first joining the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, to work once again on embryonic stem cells, and then I took up my position at SUSTech late in 2015.
I keep jumping around in both my research work and my life. This is good and bad I suppose. The diverse countries and interests give me a different view on problems.
– What made you want to come to work in China? How about Shenzhen? And SUSTech?
What drove me to come to China? Some of this is a sense of adventure, and some of this is family. My wife is Chinese, so I have a certain affinity for China. But even in Singapore, long before I met my wife, I picked up some Chinese. Now I can speak enough to manage my affairs at the bank, go to a restaurant and not leave hungry and outwit a taxi driver.
My Chinese is still not the best though. My eldest son (eight years old) constantly complains about how bad my Chinese is. He finds it hilarious I cannot speak Chinese properly. But now I am getting worried about my youngest son, who is nearly two. He is already speaking Chinese I can’t understand!
Shenzhen itself is a great place. I very much enjoy living in Southern China, the food, the people, the lifestyle are all fantastic. Shenzhen is very unique in China, it is like a little piece of DongBei floated down from Northern China and attached itself to the Pearl River Delta. This is even better! All the benefits of North and South China all in one place.
SUSTech, is a no brainer. A great place to teach, inspire, and do important research. But also, an opportunity to be part of something bigger. SUSTech has crazy high levels of ambition, and it is grat to be part of something growing so fast.
– Can you introduce your department of Biology, and its role in Shenzhen.
The Department of Biology is a critical foundation stone for both SUSTech and Shenzhen. Under the leadership of first Prof Wu Chuanyue and now Prof. Xiao Guozhi the Biology department is really making an impact. A truly world-class set of Full Professors now fill the upper ranks of our department, but the middle is well stocked with young energetic faculty, which makes the department an exciting place to work. Also we have a wonderful and very talented supply of technicians that are doing cutting edge research all the time.
For Shenzhen, Biology is absolutely critical. Most of the world’s major problems are now related to biology in some way: from health provision for an aging population, new emerging human and agricultural disease, to ecological changes in animal and plant life. It’s not all problems either: there is simply the curiosity to understand life in all its fabulous complexity. I think it is often taken for granted that we live in a very special time. Never before has such a deep understanding of how life is organized been understood. Not to say we are finished with biology: No, the reality is totally the opposite: Each answer we get just generates more questions.
Biology is no longer even just for biologists. It is now a cross roads for scientists and students from other disciplines: For mathematicians, computer scientists and physicists, we have the ultimate complex systems to test your skills against. For chemists, life is made of chemicals, and life makes chemicals. For electrical engineers, smart health wearables and the interface of machine and biology continues to pick up pace.
Many students now studying non-biology subjects will surely find themselves back in the field of biology at some point.
– How do you excite students in biology? What would you say to students who want to study Biology?
I think biology is unique. Not only critically important to everything around us, but it is also, in my opinion, one of the fastest subjects to get to the ‘edge’ of knowledge. You do not have to probe a biologist very far until he or she tells you they ‘don’t know’.
Although we can fill textbooks with the many things we do know. You just need to look between each page to find the ‘gap’, where knowledge is incomplete or even just completely missing.
The edge is where the excitement, and often frustration, is located. In biology, there are so many critical problems to address, and often so little understood.
– Can you tell us what is it that you do in your research lab, in words that a non-specialist people can understand?
My lab has two objectives:
In the first part, we create models of complicated human diseases, such as Crohn’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. These diseases are not simply genetic, but seem to be a very complex mess of combinations from DNA, the environment and interactions between cells. We do not understand what causes these diseases, and have only a shaky grasp on what the diseases even are. In my lab, we try to use genome editing and computational techniques to help us understand what is causing these diseases.
The second part of my lab is to understand why we have so much ‘useless’ DNA. Only about 4% of our genomes is absolutely critical (these are the genes), the other 96% seems unimportant. I, and others, think that all this extra DNA is in fact very important, and we are trying to find out how and why.
These two parts may seem completely unrelated, but actually they are the same. Many of the mutations in DNA that are associated with complex diseases like Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s, are not inside genes. Instead those mutations are inside the 96% of ‘useless’ DNA.
So, I think understanding what all the 96% of DNA is for, will also help us understand disease as well.
– Can you explain to us in very basic terms what kind of impacts new biology research could have on our daily lives in the near future? What is the next big thing in biology?
For me, biology is coming into everyone’s lives in at least three major exciting ways:
The first major entry is the ‘wearable’ health device. I don’t think it will be very long until we all wear watches, or even implants under our skin, that are constantly monitoring our health, from heart, brain to blood function. Integrating all of this data and bringing us on the spot pre-diagnosis before we visit a doctor or even begin to feel ill.
The second way biology is coming is through personalized genomics. We all have our own individual DNA, but the medical system treats us as if we were some sort of hypothetical ‘average’ human. This is changing, and soon we will all have our own sequenced DNA which will open up all sorts of new medical treatment options, and avenues.
The third is the development of replaceable cells, tissues and organs.
Finally, the one thing I can absolutely say for certain is that something absolutely astounding will occur that no one could possibly have predicted. Biology is like that. I grew up as a scientist working on embryonic stem cells when Shinya Yamanaka revolutionized the field of embryonic research when Yamanaka and Takahashi described a method to convert adult cells back to an embryonic state. That was ten years ago now, and it hit all of us like a lightning bolt. At the time, no one believed it was possible, but they did it. I feel we are due another breakthrough very soon.
– Do you miss anything from your home place, and did you have any difficulties adjusting to China? (or rather, when you go back to your hometown, do you miss anything from China and have difficulties adjusting there?)
I miss just two things: Cheese and beer. As for adapting to China: I get culture shock when I return to the UK. No, really. I will tell you a story: The last time I was back in the UK I was in a supermarket buying groceries, but I didn’t know where to put my basket. So, I just put it on the top, which is the typical thing to do in China and most of Asia. This was the wrong thing to do. The lady behind the counter fixed me with a vicious stare and brusquely instructed me to: “Put. The. Basket. Under. The. Table.”. As I meekly did this she subtly shook her head, and I could read her mind for just a second, as she thought “Bloody foreigner”.
– If you had a message for the biology community around the world, what would it be?
You better watch out. China is coming to eat your lunch.