Assoc Prof Koh Ming Joo conferred the Novartis Early Career Award in Chemistry

Prolific chemistry academic is the first Singaporean to receive this prestigious accolade

In Associate Professor Koh Ming Joo’s relatively short five years with the Department of Chemistry at NUS Faculty of Science, he has made notable breakthroughs in the field of sustainable chemical synthesis. Assoc Prof Koh was recently honoured as the first Singaporean scientist to receive the Novartis Early Career Award in Chemistry. Given annually to outstanding early career scientists who have made a significant contribution to chemistry, the award winner is identified from a strong pool of talents in the global research community and will receive an unrestricted research grant as part of the Award.

“This Award from Novartis is a strong recognition of our past research work in sustainable catalysis and chemical synthesis. It also demonstrates that Singaporeans and Singapore-based research can make a positive impact on the global arena,” he said. “I hope to make use of the award to fuel the next phase of my research programme, where we seek to develop transformative chemical reactions that directly modify small-molecule pharmaceutical and crop-protection active ingredients in unprecedented ways. This will provide access to new chemical structures and bring enormous benefits to various chemical industries.”

Assoc Prof Koh is not only committed to developing sustainable chemical reactions and catalyst systems, but is also motivated by a strong desire to put Singapore’s chemistry research on the world map. “After spending almost 6 years in Boston, I returned to Singapore in June 2018 since this is my home, where I grew up and where my family is. I also have a strong sense of purpose to prove that Singaporeans and Singapore-based chemistry research can shine on the international stage,” he said.

As a child, Assoc Prof Koh was fascinated by the natural world, a curiosity that eventually led him to the field of chemistry. And he eventually found his calling in academic research. "Through research, I have the opportunity to discover new chemistry that can potentially shape the world and make a positive impact on society and the environment,” he shared.

His academic journey was also shaped by the mentorship of various professors who inspired him to pursue a career in research. During his time at Boston College in the American east coast, he completed his PhD and post-doctoral fellowship in Professor Amir Hoveyda’s lab. He also collaborated with Professor Richard Schrock’s group from the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The role of chemists in a changing world

Assoc Prof Koh observed that the world is transitioning towards sustainable development so that we can continue to live, work and play on a resource-limited Earth. Singapore is contributing its part by investing in research towards sustainability, and to address pressing problems such as global warming and climate change caused by anthropogenic activities and excessive carbon emissions.

“I believe chemistry is one of the central solutions to address many of the challenges we face,” he said.

“Chemists are largely responsible for creating many of the commodities we use and consume, including food, medicine, energy, polymers and materials. In this vein, I think chemists, in collaboration with scientists from other disciplines, should come together and lead efforts in conceiving solutions for decarbonisation and reduction of environmental footprint.”

Advice for early career researchers

The chemical pathway to access a particular molecule for medicine or material science can be a tricky and complex enterprise. Likewise, the pathway of an early career researcher can be subject to many twists and turns.

“No matter which career path we choose, I believe challenges and failures are bound to happen. The question is how we deal with these challenges, so that we can grow and improve,” shared Assoc Prof Koh. “For me, I learn to accept failures along the way, and to be patient, resourceful, open-minded and willing to learn new things outside my comfort zone. If we embrace challenges and failures positively, it is only a matter of time before we get to enjoy success and the fruits of our labour.”

Assoc Prof Koh firmly believes in the role of chemistry in addressing global issues such as climate change and global warming, and is hopeful that through collaboration, chemists can lead the way in reducing environmental footprints and promoting sustainability. His message is clear: the challenges we face are significant, but by recognising the pivotal role of chemistry in our lives, we can all play a part in overcoming them.