Meet the Cambodian Ph.D. Student Aiming to Save Lives from a South Korean Lab

Sophors Phorl is currently conducting his research in the Lab of Mitochondrial Biology (Mitobiology Lab), Graduate School of Analytical Science and Technology (GRAST), Chungnam National University (CNU), South Korea. (Photo supplied)
  • KY Chamna
  • June 21, 2020 6:05 AM

While an abundance of Cambodians have followed the growing trend of studying business, international relations and computer science at university, relatively few have embarked on the path to study sciences. Sophors Phorl however, is now a Ph.D. student who is currently conducting his research in the Lab of Mitochondrial Biology (Mitobiology Lab), Graduate School of Analytical Science and Technology (GRAST), Chungnam National University (CNU), South Korea. Having obtained his master’s degree in medicine from Jeju National University in South Korea in 2016, Sophors Phorl joined the lab of mitochondrial biology under the supervision of Professor Joo-Yong Lee Ph.D. in 2017. He is currently researching metabolic diseases such as liver fatty disease and liver cancer, which he sat down to discuss with Cambodianess’ Ky Chamna. 

Ky Chamna:
How long have you been researching metabolic diseases and cellular biology and can you provide a basic explanation of what your research is all about?

Sophors Phorl: I have been working in this field for about three years since I started my Ph.D. in South Korea. Currently, my field of study and research is biochemistry or, more specifically, mitochondrial biology. I mainly focus on mitochondria—a smaller component inside a cell that produces vital energy or, in another word, it is the powerhouse of a cell. Every cell requires this kind of biological machinery to function and stay alive. However, sometimes this machinery can malfunction, which can in turn affect the growth of cells. This improper growth may allow cells to receive insufficient energy and could uncontrollably turn healthy cells into cancerous cells and other forms of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and liver fatty diseases. 

Cancer cells have a different set of gene regulation and expression when compared to healthy cells. From this stand point, my research aims to better understand this kind of process, as well as how cells interact with different kinds of molecular regulation—including gene expression and protein modification, but also to generate more reliable knowledge on the relationship between protein molecules and the speed of improper cell growth. My team’ aims to understand how the metabolic process could be controlled by a specified molecule or enzyme.

Ky Chamna: How does the research work, do you conduct research on mice or other animals? 

Sophors Phorl: First, we would conduct our research on a group of cells such as liver cells that are grown inside a glass tube. Then, we apply different kinds of medicine or drugs to the cells and observe how those cells react by regulating their gene expression. We also can inhibit some specific genes to widen our perspective in formulating results. 

After we have an idea of how the cells will respond, then we can apply what we’ve learned to living organisms, which in our case involves conducting experiments on lab mice, but our research doesn’t go any further than mice.

Ky Chamna: What are the implications of your research and how does it impact the field of biological study? 

Sophors Phorl: The implications for the medical field will be an enhanced understanding of the inner-workings of cells, which our research is primarily providing clues about. We are not tasked to develop vaccines or medicines. However, we can offer clues and data to other scientists or specialists. The data that we provide, for example, could show which genes may enable the rapid development of cancer cells, so if we can eliminate this kind of gene from appearing during a specific time of cell development, we might slow down the negative effects. Other research teams also replicate the same research separately. By doing this, we can compare different sets of results in order to produce better quality results. In short, our team paves ways and offers important clues to other specialists who will conduct clinical trials on human beings. This next process is regulated by many rules across multiple levels of discipline. 

Ky Chamna: What have you archived so far during this scientific research?

Sophors Phorl: As I am planning to graduate in 2021, my achievements so far are contained in the information and the data that I have. Several research papers from my lab related to medicines have been published. Yet, other journals are still waiting to be published since, recently, our team has found a specific kind of enzymes that control the metabolism and growth of liver cells as well as liver cancer cells. However, I cannot say much in detail because it is a novel discovery of my own research fellows. For the last three years, my team has already published several papers in some internally recognized journals.

Ky Chamna: Will the research ever come to an end at some point or will it continue forever? 

Sophors Phorl: Typically, it is a long-term project—the research is simply endless. There are so many things that we have not discovered. Millions of researchers across the world are constantly conducting various kinds of studies or research and for each answer, there are always more questions. We can finish a project for a specific question, but the research itself is endless. 

Ky Chamna: What are the things that you want to contribute back to your field or your nation? And at the same time, what is your ultimate goal?

Sophors Phorl: Developing human resources, for me, is the biggest objective in terms of my contribution. It does not really matter if I return back to Cambodia or continue researching in South Korea. What matters for me is how many people can receive this crucial knowledge—in terms of studying, as well as doing research. 

Another important objective is motivation. As a senior student, I teach younger researchers who were recruited into the laboratory regardless of their nationalities, religions, or family backgrounds. It is my duty to teach and consider all of them as my colleagues. I want to inspire them with the notion that what we are doing is for the sake of others, not just only for oneself. If we only work for the sake of personal interest, we cannot have a good motivation. I have met some students which just came to study, and later on just returned back to get a normal job. What I am doing now is for the sake of all people. In this way I can maintain my energy and motivation. 

Conclusively, further developing the younger generations is nothing short of crucial. Ultimately, despite continuing to produce more scientific research and journals, my most important goal to save lives. My effort already goes beyond myself and my family. It is every human being out there at I am contributing to. 


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