Alumni Spotlight: Martin Tsui

| Thu, 04/11/24
Martin Tsui earned a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics in 2017 through the Institute of Molecular Biophysics, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Photo by Leylen Miloslavich.
Martin Tsui earned a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics in 2017 through the Institute of Molecular Biophysics, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Photo by Leylen Miloslavich.

Martin Tsui earned a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics in 2017 through the Institute of Molecular Biophysics, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Before coming to FSU, he completed his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of California San Diego, California. His research interests involve Class 2 CRISPR systems, which help in gene editing and defense against viruses. Following graduation, Tsui worked at the University of California, San Francisco as a postdoctoral fellow, researching human cancer-associated protein complexes and SARS-CoV-2, a strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, using electron cryo-microscopy. This technique studies biomolecules like proteins or cells, at cryogenic – extremely low – temperatures. He is now developing his own startup company in the genome engineering sector.

Tell us about your background and what brought you to FSU.

At 18 years old, I moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong as a first-generation college student. While completing my undergraduate degree in chemistry, I met many ambitious peers, who led me to pursue graduate school. I started preparing by doing research in structural biology and biochemistry as a junior. After, I took a year off while continuing research before applying to doctoral programs in senior year. My undergraduate research mentor suggested FSU because of its strong structural biology research.

What inspired you to pursue a graduate degree in molecular biophysics?

I was inspired both by wanting to be the first in my family to earn a Ph.D., and my undergraduate research in structural biology, which involved using some pretty cool physics experiments to visualize biomolecules, or any molecules produced by organisms.

Could break down your research area, CRISPR Class 2 Systems?

CRISPR is a type of immune system in bacteria and single-celled organisms called archaea. CRISPR-associated proteins, or CAS proteins, help capture a copy of virus invaders' DNA or RNA sequences. As an adaptive immune system, host bacteria will need to survive the initial infection by the virus for its CRISPR to work and prevent future invasion more efficiently. Scientists are studying and applying some of these proteins to engineer DNA sequences in all organisms, including treating sickle cell disease.

Most CRISPR Class 2 systems use a single effector ribonucleoprotein, a protein with an RNA molecule, to find the DNA target that matches their RNA molecule. Although the RNA molecule has different components, the guide sequence is key. A guide sequence essentially describes the invader so Class 2 CRISPR effector complexes can identify and catch it. The Class 2 CRISPR effector complexes try to find the perfect match before they cleave, or cut, the DNA sequence of the virus, so it no longer replicates itself inside the host.

Why are these topics important today, and why is it fulfilling to work with them?

The ability to alter DNA creates potential for tackling human genetic diseases or preventing antibiotic-resistant bacteria from spreading. In addition, they could be used to upscale biofuel productions, and as climate technology becomes more popular for research and investment, many scientists are studying renewable energy. CRISPR could help these efforts by editing the DNA of a microorganism to produce ethanol more efficiently. In France, for example, scientists produced and commercialized a bioengineered house plant that filters 30 times more volatile organic compounds, which contain potentially harmful chemicals, than an air purifier.

Since leaving FSU, what has been your career path?

I did postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco, studying various human diseases ranging from cancer to COVID-19. I then moved to Michigan to study structural biology regarding rare neurodegenerative diseases. Eventually, I returned to California to start my industry career at Amazon where I developed new diagnostic products, like over-the-counter test kits. Now, I run my own startup that leverages genome engineering tools like CRISPR to create applications beyond human therapeutics.

How did your time at FSU prepare you for professional success?

As a student at the Li Laboratory, led by Hong Li, director of the Institute of Molecular Biophysics and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, I conducted research independently. As the first person there to work on a Cas9 project, I had the privilege to be as exploratory as I could. Many graduate students may not have the intellectual freedom to operate as I did, since I was starting with limited prior knowledge. This opportunity at FSU prepared me to be a better and more creative scientist.

Who are some faculty members who impacted your time at FSU?

Shout out to Peter Fajer, now retired, and Kenneth Taylor, both professors of biological science. They spoke mainly about their experiences and offered advice to me as a young scholar. Lynn Kittle was also the coordinator for the molecular biophysics graduate program when I was a student, and though she has since passed away, her presence was hugely impactful. She was always available to talk about life and was always supportive of international students adapting to living in the U.S.

I feel fortunate to have had these faculty members close by; they are one of many reasons I am so fond of FSU.

What was your favorite place on campus?

Despite my home base being the Kasha Laboratory, I would often go to the King Life Sciences Building in the Department of Biological Science. Here, I could use equipment and resources like the molecular cloning facility, and the scientists were approachable and friendly.

What advice would you have for current FSU students?

Form connections. Whatever degree you pursue, it is essential to have professional connections that help you with the next steps of your career. No matter how good your credentials are, it is often who you know, not what you know, that leads to success. It is always possible to start building a professional network to propel your career forward.

For undergraduate students, the sooner you identify your career, the better you can prepare for it. Figure out what you want to do now versus after you get your degree and be prepared to land your dream job.