Case Study: Sheng Pong

Sheng read biological sciences at University College London (UCL) where he specialised in molecular and cell biology. During his undergraduate degree, he tried out research in different subject areas within biological sciences by taking part in several internships. He studied cell division processes using Caenorhabditis elegans embryos at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in the summer after his second year. When he was on an exchange programme at Johns Hopkins University, he undertook a research project during term time, investigating the role of beta-adrenergic receptors in learning and memory in mice. Later, he did his master’s project on the function of intergenic long non-coding RNAs in fission yeast using high-throughput methods. He gradually developed interest in the enigmatic role of non-coding RNAs and decided to apply to the Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) to further his passion for RNA biology.

During the first phase of the DTP, he received training in mathematics, programming, bioinformatics, statistics and data management at the Doctoral Training Centre (DTC). He found the bioinformatics course particularly useful as molecular biologists nowadays are required to either perform bioinformatics analyses themselves or be able to communicate effectively with bioinformaticians. He subsequently did his first rotation in the Department of Biochemistry where he used RNA-sequencing techniques to examine the effect of cold temperature on gene expression and alternative polyadenylation. He studied the potential role of Dicer-dependent tRNA-derived fragments (tRFs) in gene regulation at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology for his second rotation.

Now, Sheng continues to research on tRFs in Dr Monika Gullerova’s laboratory for his DPhil project. As the name suggests, tRFs are small non-coding RNAs that originate from tRNAs, which are best known for their role as a carrier of amino acids in translation. Little is known about the function of tRFs in the cell. Do they behave like microRNAs (miRNAs), which mediate posttranscriptional gene silencing? He hopes to further understand the function of Dicer-dependent tRFs by combining state-of-the-art molecular biology and bioinformatics methods. In addition to this project, he also researches on the role of RNA-binding proteins, such as Drosha, DGCR8 and Dicer, which are major players in the maturation of miRNAs, in DNA damage response (DDR). Only recently RNA has been reported to be directly involved in regulating DDR, a mechanism crucial for safeguarding genome integrity. He intends to further elucidate the molecular mechanism underlying RNA-dependent DDR.

Before he commenced his DPhil project, he undertook a 3-month internship, as part of the DTP programme, at Oxford University Innovation, the technology transfer office of the University. He worked on various aspects of a technology transfer project, such as liaising between academics and patent attorneys, performing market analyses and prior-art searches, and promoting technologies to companies. He learned about commercial evaluation of technology, different means to protect intellectual property and the process of commercialising intellectual property through licensing and forming spin-off companies. During the internship, he also drafted marketing materials for technologies across different areas, including genomics, digital health, data analytics, vaccines and biologics. Importantly, the internship has improved his organisational and communication skills, and made him aware of non-academic career pathways that are available for PhD graduates.

The DTP requires senior DPhil students to demonstrate in the DTC courses for first-years. Sheng demonstrated in one of the biology-related courses and decided to take on the Developing Learning and Teaching (DLT) Programme that will culminate in a Staff and Education Development Association (SEDA) Professional Development Framework (PDF) Supporting Learning Award. He opines that the teaching programme can help him develop transferable skills that can be applied in whichever future career he hopes to pursue. Outside his studies, he volunteers as a copy-editor for Phenotype magazine, a student-run biochemistry magazine at Oxford University to further his interest in science communication. He wrote an article on the interplay between transcription and DDR, a major research topic of his research group, for the magazine to promote their research to a wider audience.