Newsletter No. 139

2 No. 139 19th January 1999 CUHK Newsletter Ways to Improve Teaching T wo events focussing on teaching development were organized in December for the benefit of teaching staff from the University as well as other tertiary institutions. Teaching Cells — Increase Classroom Space by Having Virtual Discussions The use o f information technology in higher education is gaining increasing attention, and researchers have found that the systematic use of computer-aided communication has a positive effect on student learning. Over 30 teaching staff f r om different departments at the University participated in a workshop entitled 'Teaching Cells — Increase Classroom Space by Having Virtual Discussions' organized by the Teaching Development Unit and facilitated by Prof. Ping Ping Fu from the Department of Management on 3rd December 1998. Prof. Fu showed how she used the Webboard program in her teaching and shared with all participants her experience in running 'virtual discussions'. Quality in Teaching and Learning: A Celebration of Best Practices in Hong Kong Higher Education Teaching staff from local higher educational institutions participated in the Conference on Quality in Teaching and Learning held from 10th to 12th December 1998 at the Hong Kong International Trade and Exh i b i t i on Centre in Kow l o on Bay. The participants presented teaching and learning enhancement papers and projects. There were also poster and computer displays. The conference was the joint effort of the UGC and the eight UGC-funded higher education institutions, and was organized under the auspices of the Consultative Committee on Teaching and Learning Quality Process Review. A booklet and videotape summarizing the projects were forwarded to the individual institutions for retention. Prof. Ping Ping Fu Winter Break Exchanges for Chung Chi Students C hung Chi College organized a series o f short-term student exchange programmes during the Christmas and New Year break to foster communication between students of the University and those from mainland and Taiwan universities. Eleven delegates from Peking University came to the college for an eight-day visit from 29th December 1998 to 5th January 1999. Seminars and projects on the t h e m e o f ' T h e Significance of Beijing and Hong Kong in the Asia-Pacific Region' we re c o n d u c t ed by students f r om b o th universities. Visits to the I CAC, the Stock E x c h a n g e , t h e headquarters o f the Democratic Party and t h e D e m o c r a t i c A l l i a n c e f o r t he Betterment of Hong Kong, the Supreme Court, and the Legislative Council were also arranged. At around the same time Chung Chi delegates visited Xian on a similar exchange programme with Xian Jiaotong University, and Shanghai on a programme with Fudan University and Tunghai University. The theme of the former was 'The impact of the Financial Crisis in Asia on Mainland and Hong K o n g' and the latter, ' H i gher Education and Social Development'. C U B i o l o g i s t T o u c h es a 'Raw' N e r v e i n P l a n t s I t was long believed that components of the nervous system are unique to animals and are absent in plants. However the discovery of genes encoding neuro- transmitter receptor molecules in plants by Prof. Lam Hon- ming of the Department of Biology and his collaborators at New York University may suggest otherwise. The research was reported in the November 1998 issue o f Nature, a mo st p r om i n e nt scientific journal. It provided evidence that glutamate receptors, the most primitive of all receptors o f neuro-signals, may exist in plants. When we, human beings, receive an external stimulus, the stimulus is transmitted from cell to cell inside our brain by means o f neuro-transmitters such as glutamate, and received by neuro- receptors such as glutamate receptors. Autopsies have revealed p r o b l ems i n the g l u t ama te receptors of people with schizophrenia and Alzheimer disease. Prof. Lam, who obtained his B.Sc. and M.Phil. in biology from CUHK and his Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry (bacteria) from Northwestern University in the United States, said that as a molecular biologist he felt plants and animals have much in common. He pointed out, 'In the very beginning, plants and animals might both have used very simple molecules for signal transduction. Yet for some reason in animals and not in plants this evolved into a nervous system which allows them to move around etc. In plants it may have become a signal transduction system related mainly to light, the main source of environmental stimuli for plants.' Prof. Lam and his research team proceeded with their search for glutamate receptors in plants at the genetic level. First they tried to find a gene that's similar in its sequence or features to animal glutamate receptors. They did. 'Sometimes you are absolutely sure a certain gene performs a certain function. Yet you can't find any evidence for it and you're stuck. We were lucky,' said Prof. Lam who believed that something more than hard work had to do with their success. Next they tried to find the functions of this gene. Did it have a receptor function or some aspect of it? They applied a synthetic compound t ha t 's been k n o wn to b l o ck s i gnal t r a n s d u c t i on i n a n i m a l s a n d observed if it affected the absorption of light in plants. It did. The plants were seen to have a shorter hypocotyl and a reduced leve of chlorophyll. The findings have interesting implications for evolutionary biologists about plant-produced neurotoxins such as nicotine, cocaine, and caffeine. Prof. Lam said biologists used to think that plants made neurotoxins to protect themselves from being eaten. The new data suggest that glutamate receptors and other similar neuro- receptors may ac t ua l ly have evolved from ancestral methods of simple communication, common to plants and animals alike. Neurotoxins may originally be signaling molecules that regulate plant receptors. Selective environmental pressure may have led to a higher production of these neurotoxins for defence against predators more recently in evolutionary time. The plant used in the study was Arabidopsis thaliana, a weed used as a genetic model for plant research in the US and the UK. It was chosen for its small size, relatively quick (two-month) life cycle, its simple genome, its possession of all the typical plant phenotypes, e.g., flowers, leaves, seeds, and the fact that there is a lot of ready information about it. So the gene has been identified. What will Prof. Lam do next? Other than studying the functions of this gene in plants in greater depth, through genetic reengineering for example, he w i ll try to identify other genes responsible for making glutamate receptors, as well as other neuro- transmitters and receptors. In terms of application, Prof. Lam explained that plants may be used for screening new d r u g s r e l a t e d t o neurotransmission as large scale preliminary tests on an i ma ls are mu ch mo re e x p e n s i v e a nd t i m e - consumi ng. Besides, the r e g u l a t i o n o f p l a n t development by glutamate receptors holds important implications for agricultural improvement. The study was started in 1995 when Prof. Lam was a research scientist at New York University with a grant from the National Institute of Health in the US. Unlike the US which is a country supportive of basic science research, Hong Kong seems to lay more emphasis on applied research. Prof. Lam observed, 'A research like mine on the relation between animals and plants is basic. Ill Hong Kong it may elicit a response like "Oh, so what's this got to do with making more money?" Applied research brings immediate returns yet it relies on very mature technology and hence is limited by what is already known. I hope that more consideration w i ll be given to support for innovative basic research in Hong Kong. Without innovation, the quality of science w i ll drop.' Though 'happy' with his accomplishment, Prof. Lam is obviously not one to rest on his laurels. 'I may have solved one problem but it brings up others... You may spend 10 or 20 years of your life to build up a system that enables you to tell the story from beginning to end. And at that point you realize "Oh, so that's the story." Many initial discoveries lead to unexpected developments. But i f you don't do it, you'll never know.' Piera Chen Prof. Lam Hon-ming