The origins of life: a biologist from Hong Kong is studying the egg cells

A young man with short dark hair.

For young researchers, winning the Otto Hahn Award is a bit like scooping a lottery jackpot: every year, the Max Planck Society presents the award to up to three researchers for outstanding achievements during their PhD. It enables them to establish their own research group at a Max Planck Institute of their choice. Cell and molecular biologist Dr Chun So has already made up his mind: in two years, the award winner plans to move to the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden and set up his own group there. The award came as a surprise to the 26-year-old from Hong Kong – and pays tribute to a courageous decision. 

Fascinated by an unexpected observation under the microscope, Chun So had abandoned his original PhD project and spontaneously switched to a new topic. To this day he remembers the sight of chromosomes separating from an egg cell during their development. “The award has motivated me to continue focusing my work on the division of female egg cells”, he says. “It’s a highly complex process.” The results of his research will also have relevance for society. “More and more people are having babies at an older age”, explains So. “I want to understand how egg cells become fertile and how they then become less fertile as a woman gets older. This knowledge will help us to develop strategies to preserve the fertility of egg cells and minimise the risks that lead to genetic disorders or miscarriages.”

Outstanding working conditions in Germany

Chun So already won numerous prizes during his study in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, the United Kingdom and Taiwan. As a holder of a Croucher Scholarship, he completed his PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in 2019. Since then he has been pursuing research – on another fellowship from the Croucher Foundation – with the cell biologist and MPI Director Dr Melina Schuh. “I applied to Melina’s lab when she was still in Cambridge”, recounts So. “At the time she was just about to move to Göttingen, she advised me to join her in Germany, saying that the working conditions were so much better there.” Though the young student from Hong Kong had not considered Germany on his list of places for pursuing a PhD at that time, he now shares his mentor’s view. “The size of the groups, the equipment in the labs, the access to so many different resources – the possibilities in Germany are really outstanding.”

Practical application is the key for Chun So

He particularly values the intensive interdisciplinary exchange between experts from different Max Planck Institutes, universities and other research institutions. This is an aspect that also prompted him to choose Dresden. “Universities and research institutions in Dresden work very closely together, share their technical equipment and apparatus, and complement one another”, he says. “These make Dresden such a great city and an excellent place for research.” Until he moves to Saxony, Chun So will continue his postdoc research with Melina Schuh and Ufuk Günesdogan at the University of Göttingen to develop new models for studying earlier development stages of egg cells. In collaboration with in-vitro fertilisation clinics, he is also extending his research from animal to human egg cells.

2020 ended with another success for the young researcher: he won the Nikon Young Scientist Award of the German Society for Cell Biology.