【Editor’s note: As the new semester commences, in this installment of Diagloge@ZJU, let's introduce you to some recipients of the Chu Kochen Scholarship for the academic year 2021-2022, which is the highest honor bestowed upon ZJU students. Meet MA Quan, a postgraduate student from the College of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science. What sets Ma apart is his unwavering passion for research. Despite being a graduate student, Ma has already made significant contributions to research, including publishing 13 SCI papers and disclosing 2 national patents.He has also received recognition for his work as the youngest person in the food-related field to be featured on Forbes 2022 30 Under 30 China List and the winner of the Best Report at the AMIFOST-2022 conference. His desire to make a practical impact is a driving force behind his work, as he seeks to improve the lives of others through his research. Through this interview, we will gain insights into Ma's personal and academic journey, exploring the motivations and inspirations that have led him to where he is today.】
Q1: Let’s begin by discussing your major. What motivated you to specialize in the current field, and can you describe how your journey began and what inspired you to pursue it?
MA: I am currently focusing on biology and biotechnology in postharvest field. My journey in this field traces back to my undergraduate years. It all started when I happened to visit a mandarin postharvest processing factory responsible for tasks like fruit selection, cleaning, and waxing. During my visit, I had conversations with workers and farmers who informed me that approximately 20% of fruits (please note that this is a rough estimate) were discarded due to various postharvest issues, such as short shelf-life, fruit diseases, appearance deterioration due to postharvest senescence, and other quality-related problems.
The more I familiarized myself with this field, the more shocked I became. It became apparent that the postharvest losses were causing an annual financial loss in the range of hundreds of billions, and for some perishable fruits like strawberries, the postharvest loss rate even reached 30%. These statistics left a lasting impression not only on me but also on everyone I shared this information with, I believe.
Q2: You've published 13 SCI papers with a high average impact factor and have 2 disclosed patents. Could you please describe the most exciting or significant research finding you've published so far?
MA: Currently, our research is focused on the epitranscriptional regulation of RNA, specifically concerning the regulation of RNA 5'-end cap structures in cellular physiology. We have identified a novel noncanonical RNA cap known as NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), which is prevalent in the strawberry transcriptome and appears to have a potential role in regulating the ripening of strawberry fruit (receptacle). We saw the abundance of the NAD+ cap varies dynamically and the NAD+-capped transcriptome change dramatically with the ripening stages.
However, numerous questions remain regarding the true functions of this type of noncanonical RNA cap. NAD is a type of redox metabolite that plays a crucial role in the energy metabolism processes of not only plants but also all higher organisms, including mammals. It has also been reported to be associated with the aging process in humans. So we aim to accurately annotate the transcriptional starting sites of NAD+-capped RNAs in plants and other eukaryotes through chemically biotechnological approaches to shed the light of the capping machinery of NAD+ in eukaryotes. This cutting-edge discovery opens up a completely new area of research, and we are committed to further investigating these scientific inquiries.
Q3: Congratulations on your well-deserved recognition in the Forbes 30 Under 30 China List. You've also achieved success in various innovation and entrepreneurship competitions, leading your team to national championships. I'm particularly impressed by a statement you once made: How can people engaged in agriculture not get mud on their feet? With that in mind, what, in your opinion, presents the greatest challenge when it comes to commercializing scientific and technological achievements?
MA: The challenge lies in the paradox between marketing and the practical application of technology. Markets often provide a limited scope for trial and error, while technology demands iterative cycles of experimentation and systematic traceback for improvement. Successful technology implementation requires significant capital investment to optimize product or technique effects, costs, and selling strategies.
However, the most significant problem, at least in my field, is convincing people to embrace new innovations. Even if current products are visibly insufficient or potentially harmful to both fruits and the environment, people tend to stick with their familiar choices. Breaking this pattern is crucial. As innovators, we must educate customers about the benefits of new technologies, which requires confidence in our techniques, a deep understanding of our field, and effective marketing. This, in turn, enables us to discern what people and the market truly need, as well as the actual value of our technology. To achieve this, direct engagement with farms and orchards is essential.
Q4: You have achieved impressive academic accomplishments. Can you share with us the support you have received from your school and mentors during this period? How have they contributed to your success?
MA: I extend my heartfelt gratitude to my advisors, colleagues, family members, friends, acquaintances, and countless others—too numerous to mention individually—who have supported me throughout various events. In reality, it is ZJU that has nurtured me. ZJU is a vast world filled with some of the most talented and distinguished individuals globally.
I had the good fortune to meet my advisor, Prof. LUO Zisheng, and my scientific co-advisor, Prof. LIU Jianzhao. During the initial stages of my research, I encountered pressures and struggles that I believe nearly all postgraduates experience to varying degrees. Prof. Luo played a pivotal role in helping me overcome feelings of self-doubt and depression. He told me, One possesses innate talent, which others cannot hinder; occasional dark clouds only serve to make the starlight shine even brighter, which still inspires me during moments of research challenges. Prof. Liu is the most innovative scientist I've ever known. He guided me in expanding my knowledge base and taught me how to inject creativity into experiments.
Q5: You are a member of the Wenqin Symphony Orchestra and the School of Biosystems Engineering and Food Science basketball team. How do you manage your time between your academic and extracurricular activities? Do you think music and sports have helped you in your research and academic pursuits?
MA: In reality, every researcher has limited time available for entertainments. For me personally, I can only engage in music and play basketball regularly once a week. This requires careful long-term planning, as I need to ensure I have one afternoon free every week to accommodate the regular Wenqin Symphony Orchestra training on Friday afternoons. As for basketball, it offers more flexibility; I typically play at night after finishing my work, and if it's too late, I engage in some aerobics in my dorm.
Both music and sports have proven to be beneficial to my research. The research environment often involves working under constant pressure, surrounded by numerous static, silent, and lifeless pieces of equipment, with frequent encounters with failure. In this context, music and sports provide me with a means to alleviate the stress and pressure associated with the fear of failure in research. Additionally, the shift in thinking that these activities provide helps maintain my creativity, as I firmly believe that our brains can generate new ideas only when we are in a relaxed state.
Q6: Your research has contributed significantly to reducing postharvest losses in fruits by over 3 million yuan. What is your vision for the future of food science and how do you see your research contributing to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
MA: Advances in technology and our changing living environment have shifted people's dietary preferences towards healthier food choices, going beyond the basic requirement of energy intake. However, food production and processing often give rise to environmental issues, such as air pollution from animal husbandry and spoilage-related pollution due to postharvest diseases. In my personal opinion, the future of the food industry will prioritize both the health and sustainability of food alongside production yield. Many innovative techniques and concepts, like artificial meat and postharvest preservation technologies, are emerging as the forefront of the future of food.
In this context, our research aims to fundamentally understand the underlying molecular mechanisms of postharvest fruit issues. It's worth noting that after harvesting, fruits remain alive and undergo biochemical processes like energy metabolism, respiration, and reduction-oxidation reactions. Their commercial value is directly linked to their postharvest physiology. For me and our lab, our work involves providing the foundational theory of postharvest physiology and applying this theory to fine-tune postharvest physiology. This, in turn, helps maintain fruit quality and shelf-life, contributing to economic sustainability by addressing postharvest losses.
Interviewer: DING Jiachen
Editor: TIAN Minjie
Photo credit: MA Quan