"With an iPhD you essentially have double the fun"

Jeremy Wong working at an anaerobic gas tight chamber, where he gros bacterial biofilms © J. Wong 2021 EPFL

Jeremy Wong working at an anaerobic gas tight chamber, where he gros bacterial biofilms © J. Wong 2021 EPFL

Jeremy Wong is a third-year iPhD student with the labs of Professors Alexandre Persat and Tom Ian Battin, respectively at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences (SV) and Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC). Hailing from Canada and with his roots in Hong Kong, Wong has made his way into biology after a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. When not in lab, Jeremy can be found watching sunsets atop mountain peaks in Valais, playing his violin and harmonica, making polymer clay miniatures, and baking cakes and cookies for his lab mates, who he considers the friendliest guinea pigs for his newest culinary experiments.

If you are passing by the third floor of the AI building at 7 am and hear violin strings, there is a high chance Jeremy is at work. Jeremy Wong is a third-year iPhD student working between the labs of Professors Tom Ian Battin and Alexandre Persat. As an SV-ENAC interdisciplinary student, Jeremy wears multiple hats of creativity every day, something that he believes connects everything he does.

The beginnings of chemistry and the color connection

As a child, Jeremy loved to paint and always wondered where paint colors came from. “I always asked my grandparents, ‘Why the sky is blue? Why does it change color at night?’” he says. “I was always interested in what things are made of. That is where my interest in chemistry began.” That interest led Jeremy to pursue a four-year bachelor’s in chemistry at the University of Toronto, during which he carried out several summer projects, including a two-month project at EPFL (Summer Research Program). In his various research stints the connection was color – from studying metalloenzymes and spectroscopy to now using fluorescent proteins in his PhD for assessing the growth of bacterial biofilms.

Rendezvous with biology

After his bachelor’s, Jeremy took a plunge into a PhD to expand all the chemistry knowledge that he had gathered by working in Canada and Europe. At this juncture he wanted to understand how living systems such as bacteria work. However, transitioning from chemistry to biology was not as easy as he had hoped. “While I was accepted at several universities for PhDs in chemistry, none of the biology departments wanted to take me on, as I didn’t have direct biology experience. They all said, ‘you are just a chemist’,” he recollects.

But EPFL was different. It was the openness of EPFL to accept me despite my zero experience in biology that brought me where I am today

Jeremy Wong, PhD student

And thus began his iPhD at EPFL.

In a nutshell: understanding chemical communication in bacterial colonies

Spanning microbiology, chemistry, and ecology, Jeremy’s project is truly interdisciplinary. Simply put, “in society there are different people, some who are selfless and others selfish. Selfless people are more liked by others and make bigger communities. Similarly, in the bacterial world there are bacteria who share the metabolites they take and those who keep the metabolites to themselves. As a bacterium, if you share metabolites, you survive better. Chemical sharing and social communication are what lead to communities and colonies. It is these communities, their composition and dynamics that I am studying.” How bacteria grow in the presence or absence of communication not only has microbiology implications for the gut microbiota (Persat’s lab) but also long-term applications for ecology (Battin’s lab), e.g. how biofilms from streams, mountains, and rocks self-organize. Jeremy’s project uses a blend of techniques from microfluidics and mass spectrometry to microscopy and image analysis. EPFL, with its diverse facilities and interdisciplinary ecosystem, is a perfect place for this work. “There’s always someone here who knows how to do something that you want to do,” says Jeremy. “And if there’s anything missing, collaborating across other universities is so easy. For instance, I routinely do glycan analysis and HPLC at ETH Zurich.”

Double the learning, double the fun

The iPhD program is one of a kind. “The projects are challenging in the beginning as you need to know backgrounds from different fields, but once you get through the initial hurdles, you learn much more than in a traditional PhD. In the end the knowledge (from these different fields) is yours. Every day you meet double the number of people, present to double the kind of audience, attend twice the type of conferences, essentially have double the fun,” Jeremy laughs. “If you are creative and like to think about new things, this program is totally for you.”

The music of PhD

Music has deeply influenced Jeremy’s science – from how to deal with stress to how to organize time. “PhD is like a piece of concerto,” he says. “There is fast movement when a brilliant idea pops up, then a slow movement of overcoming various experimental obstacles, and then a fast movement again once you get past the obstacles. But the music goes on.”