Bridging the divide in pursuit of innovation
From left: Asst Prof Toh, Asst Prof Ong and Asst Prof Shao in the BIGHEART laboratories
In conjunction with International Women’s Day, this feature is to celebrate the achievements of NUS’ female researchers. This article illustrates the work and influence of three innovators from the field of biomedical research, and on a more personal note, the challenges faced by women in the scientific field.
Biologists and physicists, chemists and engineers; they are finally talking to one another. They may not always speak the same language, but what has evolved in recent years is a blurring of the divide between the physical and natural sciences. The ultimate result of this sharing of ideas? Innovation.
Indeed, the push towards “interdisciplinary research” is driving a revolution in medical science. It has brought new perspectives to how clinicians understand and diagnose disease, and has changed the way patients are treated, and outcomes managed.
One researcher at NUS who takes an interdisciplinary approach to her research is Assistant Professor Shao Huilin, from NUS Biomedical Engineering. She is also Principal Investigator at the NUS Biomedical Institute for Global Health Research and Technology (BIGHEART).
“From the get-go I wanted to conduct research at the interface of biology and physics. While at first, I was particularly interested in the science, I have since realized that such research can make a real impact on the lives of patients — and that is really meaningful and fulfilling,” said Dr Shao, whose research focuses on developing novel devices for molecular diagnostics.
One such device can detect circulating biomarkers — measurable indicators of the severity or presence of specific diseases — in body fluids such as blood or urine. Other devices include next-generation biosensors engineered from nanomaterials. Together, these technologies offer a means to diagnose specific diseases without a need for invasive and repeat biopsies.
Sharing this desire for innovative diagnostics is BIGHEART Principal Investigator Assistant Professor Catherine Ong, who also holds appointments in the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, and the Division of Infectious Diseases at the National University Hospital. Her specialty is in tuberculosis (TB), and while directing her research to better understand how the body responds to TB infection, she focuses on biomarker discovery, both for rapid resistant pathogen diagnostics, and for the detection of TB.
With TB most prevalent in developing countries, Dr Ong recognizes the need to translate her research into readily accessible and affordable point-of-care tests towards infectious diseases. Achieving this, she points out, requires strong collaboration between clinicians and bioengineers.
Not only are such innovative technologies changing the way clinicians diagnose and treat diseases, but they are also providing new directions from which researchers can approach traditional questions.
For Assistant Professor Toh Yi-Chin, also from NUS Biomedical Engineering and Principal Investigator at BIGHEART, this means engineering new human cell-based systems for drug screening. Her goal is to ultimately remove the reliance on animal models for drug testing. With cell culture methods integrated into specifically designed microfabricated devices, researchers are now able to examine the response of different cells or tissues to novel drug therapies. These systems have recently been used to investigate how an immune response can result from the activation of drugs by liver cells; which is highly relevant for anyone with drug allergies.
Enabling female researchers
Besides their common pursuit for innovative technologies in healthcare and biomedical research, each of these researchers also share an acute awareness of the unique challenges women face working in STEM research.
For those managing research teams, preparing grant proposals or striving for tenured positions, time away from the laboratory can be a daunting decision to face. A return to the lab, even more so.
“There is rarely any prejudicial treatment per se; however, as women we certainly need to consider the consequences of taking time away from the lab. Whether it is to start a family, or caring for our children, we often need to split our time — and our minds — in order to fulfil all our responsibilities and duties. Daily tasks, deadlines and promotion evaluations, they don’t wait for you. Research can occupy all of your mental capacity, which means there can be a cost to the family as well,” said Dr Toh.
With students and research staff now under their guidance, Drs Ong, Shao and Toh see their role as mentors as an integral component to being researchers, and believe it is important for young female researchers to have female mentors.
“For me, one of the most fulfilling aspects is being able to nurture and mentor the younger generation of doctors and researchers. Ideally, we will see more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) research, and more women in senior management roles, so that they can then mentor others with an understanding of the challenges that STEM research brings, especially for women,” said Dr Ong.
To that end, Dr Ong is actively involved in the Women in Science and Healthcare (WISH) initiative, which was established within the National University Health System. WISH is open to researchers across the university network and serves as a platform for young researchers to both network and build research collaborations, and also gain essential mentorship from senior STEM researchers.
“Ultimately, everyone should be driven by their passions. Whether it’s basic science, or commercializing innovative technologies. Everyone needs to discover what motivates them. Then, they should have open and frank discussions with their partners and families, because this will be their support base, which is something we all need to have,” said Dr Toh.
Indeed, support from family, friends, mentors, and the wider research communities have enabled many of NUS’ female researchers to follow their passion for discovery, and continue contributing to science in an impactful way.
Today, women are increasingly being recognized for their contributions to science. Last year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was jointly awarded to Professor Frances H Arnold of the California Institute of Technology, for her work on the directed evolution of enzymes. In the same year the Lasker-Koshland Special Achievement Award in Medical Science honoured Yale University’s Professor Joan Argetsinger Steitz, for her leadership in RNA biology and in scientific mentorship. Closer to home, the 2018 President’s Science and Technology Medal was awarded to NUS Visiting Professor Judith Swain for her contributions to the development of Singapore’s translational and clinical research environment.