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How Dr Russell Chan Found His Path to R&D in Biotechnology

Russell Chan BannerDr Russell W. Chan is the Chief Technology Officer at Gense Technologies Ltd., an award-winning startup listed on Forbes Asia 100 To Watch 2022.  His company’s self-developed portable biomedical imaging device has won grand awards in various technology and entrepreneurship competitions. After obtaining a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from HKU in 2016, he was a postdoc at Stanford University and NYU Langone Health before starting his own business. He is a Junior Fellow of the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, and the lead of the R&D focus group and committee member of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers Biomedical Division.


What made you pursue a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at HKU?

Since I was young, I have been wanting to apply sciences to improve the quality of individuals’ health. That’s one of the reasons why I went into biomedical engineering. I believe we need to go through diagnosis before treatment, which means we need to see the process through and look at how people are inside. To do this and make a substantial change, we need novel methods, and that requires R&D, which usually needs to go through the PhD route. My focus has always been research, development, application, and dissemination of state-of-the-art technologies, more specifically, multimodal and multiscale biomedical imaging methods to advance biotechnology and quality of life.


What is the most challenging moment in your academic journey as a PhD student at HKU? How did you overcome it?

We come across many challenges throughout the PhD Journey.  One such challenge I faced was in my third year. We were trying to set up a multidisciplinary experiment called optogenetics functional MRI. At that time, only one lab in the world had done this. We were trying to replicate that experiment, which involved light/optics, genetics, neurosurgery, neuroscience, imaging, signal processing, etc. It was very multidisciplinary, with each field having its own jargon.  The process involved a great deal of trial and error. I was in the dark for six months. Theoretically each step seemed fine, but then during the integration, everything can go wrong.  What I have learned throughout this process is that we need to discuss a lot with people to facilitate a very good and clear communication, and to integrate each other’s strengths. Ultimately, we pushed through and succeeded. Our study yielded a pretty good journal paper published in PNAS, and it had also been covered in the media and ranked number two in neuroscience findings in 2017.  It was a very fruitful experience.


How did you deal with “darkness” in your PhD journey?

Sometimes when it doesn’t work, it’s not your fault. We just need to keep zooming out and zooming in, and find friends to discuss it with.

I was fortunate enough to have many friends. I lived in a hall and I was the tutor of Lap-Chee College. As a tutor you have duties, but you can still socialise and learn much from others. Usually, a PhD student goes through a period of “darkness”, long or short. I heard that some people were in the dark for two or three years, eventually switching projects. Sometimes when it doesn’t work, it’s not your fault. For example, if an experimental procedure required 16 hours, but there’s a typo or miscommunication and it became 6 hours, it will be impossible to replicate. I think many people come across darkness because of those tiny mistaken details. We just need to keep zooming out and zooming in, and find friends to discuss it with. Going to conferences also definitely helps.


Tell us about your current work. How did you launch your startup?

I leverage a large amount on my PhD study. Knowing that I need a very diverse team to be potentially successful, I partnered with two other co-founders who have very different backgrounds from mine. I’m the Chief Technology Officer and am more on the R&D side, while our Chief Operating Officer is an expert in operations and regulatory processes, and our Chief Executive Officer is on the fundraising and business side. We are a very diverse group. We have mathematicians, algorithm engineers, software engineers, electronics engineers, biomedical engineers and even a registered nurse.  Our R&D on portable biomedical imaging is all about primary care, which is considered as one of the most essential parts of the healthcare system.  We believe one way to improve primary care is by taking biomedical imaging out of hospitals and putting it into clinics and homes. Recently, we have won a couple more accolades: we were listed on Forbes Asia 100 To Watch last year, and we also got an award from the Hong Kong Academy of Engineering Sciences.


Have you ever thought of pursuing an academic career? How did your time at HKU shape your career aspirations?

When I was an undergrad at HKU, I thought about going into academia. But I always went out and met a lot of exchange students and talked to different people. Through talking to these people—some from the United States—I learned that there are more R&D opportunities in industry there and it sounded fun. When I was doing my PhD, it was truly fun, and very novel. But then everything stops after publishing a paper—whether this can push through and really change someone’s life or society is actually pretty unknown. One way to deliver research to society is to do industry R&D, and you could join an R&D team in a company and work your way up to become an R&D director where you can change the direction.


Tell us something about your hall life.

My undergrad life in Lee Shau Kee and my PhD life in Lap-Chee were wonderful because I got to meet a wide variety of people with different cultural and academic backgrounds. Sometimes it’s very inspiring to talk to people who have different mindsets, and you would start to have a holistic view of various policies or norms in the world.  Taking up leadership roles in my university life was also very valuable. It allowed me to test out my leadership skills and find out what kind of leadership style suits me best while at the same time delivering prominent results. The trial-and-error period during my undergrad study was very valuable and then I took it into another level when I was a tutor at Lap-Chee, where I learned so much about accepting multiple iterations. That helped me throughout my career.


What advice would you give to current research postgraduate students at HKU?


You’ve got to go out, socialise and network, and learn more about what’s outside. PhD life is not just the lab.

When you are doing your PhD, it’s always great to focus on your studies, focus on that specific experiment, and publish papers—this will always be number one. But I do believe you can take advantage of the environment, leveraging HKU’s diversity to do a lot of networking, because maybe you could start a company with someone in another department.  You can also do some internships in industry or in other labs, as those experiences would be good for career planning.  There are many career paths for PhD graduates, not just academia. For example, you can do R&D in industry, or you can also become a consultant. PhD training allows you to identify a problem, and you can design your way to tackle the problem and you have iterative analysis to improve the method and draw a conclusion. This whole process is like what a consultant does. I see some PhD students who are so focused on their studies. They stay in the lab 24 hours a day and they don’t get to experience different alternative career paths. You’ve got to go out, socialise and network, and learn more about what’s outside. PhD life is not just the lab.


Contact us at gradsch@hku.hk if you want to get in touch with Dr Russell Wade Chan to learn more about his research work and job opportunities.


gense Dr Russell Chan and his research team at Gense Technologies have developed a portable biomedical imaging device “mediscanTM” for the early detection of diseases. The device has recently awarded one of two grand winners at the Jumpstarter 2022 Global Pitch Competition.
lapchee Dr Russell Chan was the tutor of the Lap-Chee College during his PhD study at HKU.


Dr Russell Chan (4th from right, second row) obtained his PhD in Biomedical Engineering in 2016 under the supervision of Professor Ed Wu (5th from right, second row), Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, HKU. Dr Chan met his fellow co-founder and COO Dr Eddie Wong (2nd from right, second row) in the lab.


(from left) Dr Russell Chan, Professor Ed Wu and Dr Alex Leong made a major breakthrough in unveiling the mysteries of the brain to reveal functions of the hippocampus, bringing insights to the causes and treatments of brain diseases.


Dr Russell Chan (3rd from left) is the co-founder of Gense Technologies, an award-winning startup listed on Forbes Asia 100 To Watch 2022.