While most of us are trying our hardest to avoid the dreaded mosquito, Associate Professor Lok Shee Mei from the Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme at Duke-NUS Medical School runs right towards them.
The dengue virus expert’s interest lies in studying the structural changes the virus particles undergo when infecting cells to aid in the design and delivery of targeted vaccines and therapeutics.
“I have enjoyed science for as long as I can remember. I was always in awe when people made breaking discoveries or pioneered exciting technologies,” said Assoc Prof Lok, who holds a joint appointment at NUS Biological Sciences.
However, its applications in the real world were not always as apparent to her from reading textbooks as a young girl. Hence, she made the decision to sign up for a biotechnology course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic after graduating from secondary school.
This proved to be the right step. It was not long before Assoc Prof Lok discovered the social benefits her research could provide — the dengue virus infects approximately 100 million people each year and with increased travel and climate change, there is an urgent need to develop safe and effective therapeutics and vaccines — and if her curiosity for science, particularly small flying insects, had been ignited earlier, now it burned brightly.
Her dedication to her work could not have been more evident than when she made the difficult decision to pursue her postdoctoral training at Purdue University in US, while her husband and young daughter remained in Singapore.
“I was torn between pursuing my research interest in the US and staying with my family in Singapore. It was a very difficult decision but I knew that this postdoctoral training opportunity in a very well-known laboratory would enhance my skills and help in my future career. I decided to take the plunge. I missed my family every day; it was the driving force for me to complete my training and to learn as much as possible in the shortest possible time,” shared Assoc Prof Lok, who also holds a PhD in X-ray crystallography from NUS.
She returned to Singapore in 2009, eager to start work on the next breakthrough, all while juggling the demands of raising a young family of her own.
In 2015, Assoc Prof Lok read about the Zika virus — a similar but more stable mosquito-borne virus — and its connections to microcephaly and thought she could contribute to understanding and tackling the disease. Importing the virus from the US and examining it under cryo-electron microscopy, her team raced against the clock to identify sites on the particle that provide the stability of the Zika virus. Disrupting these sites through the use of antibodies or drugs can help to weaken the virus and limit its spread.
The hard work paid off. The team made history as one of the first in the world to image the Zika virus, their findings published in the prestigious international journal Nature in April 2016, barely four months after receiving the virus samples.
Assoc Prof Lok hopes to investigate other important pathogens such as the chikungunya and hepatitis C viruses in the future.
Though the self-professed science geek initially faced some resistance breaking into the field, it was not long before the international scientific community sat up and took notice. In 2013, she was presented with the Ngee Ann Polytechnic Alumni Award for making a difference in science and technology. By 2016, she was featured as one of Asian Scientist’s “7 Scientists from Singapore to watch” and “one of the most outstanding scientists in Singapore” by the National Research Foundation. Today her laboratory is recognised as one of the leaders in the field of emerging infectious diseases.
The accolades motivate Assoc Prof Lok and her team to push themselves further. However, when asked what really makes her proud, she humbly answers that it is when her students are excited about their work and start teaching her things instead.
“The beauty of doing research is that each day is different and can unearth many surprises!” she enthused.
When she is not figuring out what makes insects tick, Assoc Prof Lok spends her hours reading, hiking with friends and family and whipping up a storm in the kitchen.
Optimistic about the changing nature of women in science, Assoc Prof Lok thinks that more women are steadily joining Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields but that it may take some time for them to reach the pinnacle of the hierarchy. “I believe in future there will be more women at the top. We just need to keep our eyes on the target,” she said confidently.
This is the second of a new five-part series by NUS News profiling some of the University’s prominent females making waves in STEM.