Prof Liu Bin: Lighting up STEM research

12 October 2018 | Research
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Prof Liu feels that it is not enough to do good science; there needs to be impact

Professor Liu Bin describes herself as a full-time scientist, manager, entrepreneur and mother. On the global stage, she is recognised as a leader in the field of organic functional materials, yet, despite a growing list of accolades, remains modest in her achievements, and maintains a pragmatic approach to her many roles.

Growing up in China’s Jiangsu Province, Prof Liu never thought that she would one day rise to such prominence. Her father, despite majoring in French, encouraged his daughters to study natural sciences at school. This, he believed, would ensure good job prospects, and the possibility for further study abroad. 

While his guidance played a major role in Prof Liu’s early career choices, she readily admits that she would not be where she is today without seizing opportunities as they presented themselves. 

The first, she recalls, came more than two decades ago when an application form for the NUS postgraduate programme was handed to her by her roommate, who happened to have an extra copy. It did not take Prof Liu long to decide; in fact, the rhetorical question of ‘why not?’ popped into her head almost immediately. Fortuitously the offer came through quicker than expected. She swiftly settled the logistics and moved to Singapore — a place she still calls home today. 

Having trained as an organic chemist, Prof Liu joined the lab of Professor Lai Yee Hing, who was then head of NUS Chemistry. She was assigned to explore polymer-related research, and as Prof Liu soon discovered, this placed her in somewhat unfamiliar territory. After one year, she began to struggle to reconcile her desire to succeed with her lack of progress. Self-doubt was testing her resolve for the first time. 

“I struggled for the first year because I didn’t know how to do this kind of research. I remember one night in particular. It was the mid-autumn festival. I was alone in the lab preparing to conduct polymerisation of some monomers that I had spent two months preparing. But I dropped the round bottle flask (containing the samples), and with that two months’ worth of work disappeared! That got to me — I sat in the lab and cried.” 

She soon discovered the key was to break down the larger scientific problems into stages and solve each stage one at a time. This ultimately allowed her to bridge gaps that had previously seemed insurmountable. In retrospect, Prof Liu attributes this period of struggle to providing the valuable lessons that have guided her career since.

“I’ve been very fortunate. There have been many great people who mentored and nurtured me, and who made sure I didn’t falter or detour.” 

Prof Liu went on to submit her thesis less than three years after commencing her PhD. This was again fortuitous, as her next opportunity was already on the horizon. 

Prof Liu was then one of the few people engaged in research on water-soluble conjugated polymers. Soon after she had submitted her thesis, Prof Alan Heegar from the University of California, Santa Barbra (UCSB), was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering work on conducting polymers. This triggered a global search for young researchers to expand the field of organic soluble semiconductors from traditional electronics to biomedical applications. 

As a newly minted PhD in the field, and with several publications to her name, Prof Liu was the ideal candidate. She was offered a postdoctoral position at UCSB and later worked as an assistant research professor with Guillermo C. Bazan. She would remain there until a chance meeting with the NUS Dean of Engineering and Dean of Science at a joint NUS-UCSB workshop in 2005 drew her back to Singapore. 

What drives Prof Liu — and what she believes should also drive other researchers — is her interest in the questions she seeks to answer. All research, she believes, should make an impact. Whether that impact comes from answering fundamental questions, or through the development of a useful technology, depends on the researcher. She points out however, that it is less feasible for researchers to be solely focused on the science itself. 

“I tell my students, you differ by how you present yourself. It is of utmost importance that you communicate your work effectively, and convince others that your work is impactful.”

In her 12 years at NUS, Prof Liu has accumulated numerous accolades, including the 2008 National Science and Technology Young Scientist Award and the 2016 President’s Technology Award. In 2014 she co-founded Luminicell, a NUS spin-off company that produces aggregation-induced emission dots, which are organic luminescent nanoparticles for use in medical and biological applications. Since 2014, she has been named one of the world’s most highly cited researchers in materials science by Thomson Reuters and Clarivate Analytics.

I tell my students, you differ by how you present yourself. It is of utmost importance that you communicate your work effectively, and convince others that your work is impactful.

Today, as Head of NUS Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Prof Liu is mindful of the fact that she is one of the few women in the world leading a research department in the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Nonetheless, the social education provided by her father during her childhood is not lost on her. She was raised not to distinguish between male and female when it comes to education or profession. When asked whether more women should be working in the field, she believes that a passion for research should be the determining factor in who pursues such a career. 

“Not every girl should be persuaded to do STEM subjects. But if she has an interest, society should provide opportunities for her to pursue her interests.” 

She is, however, eager to see what she can achieve by being a female scientist in a management position. She hopes to continue to increase awareness of her field through conferences and workshops, and to bring scientists and engineers with shared interests together to establish a synergistic community that continues to innovate wide-reaching applications for Singapore and beyond.