NUS scientists honoured as influential young innovators in Asia Pacific

Five young researchers from NUS who have made great achievements in their respective fields have been identified as among the most influential innovators in Asia Pacific who are younger than 35.

Recognised in the 2021 MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 Asia Pacific List which was unveiled on 28 October, these honourees were selected by distinguished judges from around the world, based on criteria such as: impact, ingenuity, daring, timeliness, entrepreneurial accomplishments, and communication skills.

Each year, MIT Technology Review recognises brilliant talents for their advancements in diverse technical fields including biotechnology and medicine, computer and electronics hardware, software, internet, artificial intelligence, robotics, telecommunications, nanotechnology and materials, energy, and transportation. These outstanding innovators are commended under five categories: Inventors who build the stuff of the future; Entrepreneurs who hope to turn innovations into disruptive businesses; Visionaries who find powerful new uses of technology; Humanitarians who take unconventional routes to bring about a healthier, cleaner, and more adaptable world; and Pioneers who push the edge of science to create new approaches to tackling technology challenges.

Pioneer: Dr Agata Blasiak

Working with her team, Dr Agata Blasiak from the NUS N.1 Institute for Health and Institute for Digital Medicine (WisDM) at NUS Medicine has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) platform CURATE.AI to assist doctors in Singapore to optimise the dose of chemotherapy drugs to reduce the painful side effects while sustaining, or even improving, the efficacy of the treatment. CURATE.AI is now being clinically validated for use in the treatment of blood cancer and solid tumours.

In early 2020, Dr Blasiak pivoted her research to contribute to the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Her colleagues and her developed IDentif.AI, a drug combination optimisation platform that rapidly optimises infectious disease combination therapy design using AI. Using this platform, they found that the combination of remdesivir and anti-AIDS drugs can increase the effectiveness of remdesivir by six times against this new coronavirus.

To meet the growing demand for COVID-19 rapid testing, Dr Blasiak developed a saliva collection device, SHEAR SCD, inspired by the cream piping bag used in cake baking. The device can effectively reduce the viscosity of saliva and improve its uniformity for new COVID-19 testing devices. This patented invention is currently being commercialised, and can potentially be applied to other diseases beyond COVID-19 diagnostics.

Dr Blasiak, who is also from NUS Bioengineering, said, “Digital health is a new frontier of patient care. It requires putting together the best research in medicine, engineering and social sciences. I am grateful to NUS for creating a conducive ecosystem to do just that, so we can find new effective ways of supporting patients in Singapore and beyond.”

Visionary: Assistant Professor Koh Ming Joo

The decline in supply of precious metals has pushed industries to search for sustainable and cost-effective alternatives. This has motivated Asst Prof Koh Ming Joo from NUS Chemistry to develop catalysts derived from abundant base metals such as iron and nickel.

He has successfully developed realistic and less costly catalyst systems including new homogeneous iron- and nickel-based catalysts, new protocols for promoting cross-coupling and alkene/alkyne functionalisations, and next-generation heterogeneous single-atom metal catalysts. His sustainable approach will significantly enhance the way in which many important molecules are prepared in terms of cost savings, as well as vis-à-vis the amount of waste generated.

Asst Prof Koh said, “I am honoured to receive this recognition as a chemist. I would like to share this award with my students and co-workers who have contributed to our research programme at NUS. Hopefully, this will inspire those who are passionate in their field of study to dream big and pursue excellence.”

Visionary: Assistant Professor Jonathan Scarlett

Group testing is a widely used technique for fast testing in medical applications (e.g. blood tests or nasal PCR tests). It has been a popular and powerful strategy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when testing resources worldwide were scarce and costly.

The group testing problem consists of determining a small set of defective items (e.g. abstractly representing infected individuals in medical testing) from a larger set of items based on tests on groups of items. It can be thought of as a combinatorial search problem with a flavour of sparse inference.

Asst Prof Jonathan Scarlett from NUS Computer Science and NUS Mathematics has spent years in better understanding the mathematical algorithms and theory behind group testing. His work provided new precise characterisations of the performance bounds for algorithms and impossibility results, which are the fundamental mathematical limits of the problem.

He has also broadened the scope of the problem by making fundamental contributions on issues such as partial recovery (e.g. tolerating a small number of false positives or false negatives), proving phase transition behaviour on how many tests are required, proving achievability and impossibility results on the performance of group testing algorithms under noise, and several other variations on the problem.

Asst Prof Scarlett also adapted his mathematical studies of group testing to other seemingly distinct signal acquisition problems, which are relevant in applications such as MRI.

“It’s an honour to be selected for this award, and I am deeply grateful to all of my collaborators and students that worked together with me on group testing and related topics; their efforts have truly been invaluable in pushing this research forward,” said Asst Prof Scarlett.

Visionary: Assistant Professor Shin Sunmi

Heat, the most ubiquitous form of energy, is very difficult to control due to its diffusive nature. Asst Prof Shin Sunmi from NUS Mechanical Engineering devised a series of novel setups that demonstrated the capability to enhance and directly measure the coherent thermal emission from nanoscale emitters with exceedingly low emitting power from cryogenic to room temperature. She further strengthened the directionality of radiative emission by fabricating a "heat wire" and controlled the direction of heat flow in a similar fashion to an optical fiber.

Asst Prof Shin said, “The first step to probe the novel heat transfer mode was successful by developing a sensitive thermometry platform. It remains a long journey ahead to utilise it as a dominant heat transfer mode beyond classical heat conduction, radiation and convection, in daily applications. I am excited to see the future where one has a great control of heat and manipulate it to transport, store, and switch in a similar way that one has achieved in optics and electrical engineering.”

Pioneer: Assistant Professor Tan Yu Jun

Asst Prof Tan Yu Jun from NUS Mechanical Engineering developed a new and unique fluoropolymer that has very high dielectric permittivity with good elastic properties – this is a breakthrough in stretchable light-emitting capacitors. This highly transparent material demonstrated the highest light output per unit electric field applied when used as the dielectric material in the light-emitting capacitor device. It is also the first of its type to be used in light-emitting capacitors and shows great promise to develop new optoelectronic applications in soft machines.

Asst Prof Tan further discovered that the material was able to self-heal autonomously from mechanical damage, and revealed the mechanism of healing action. She also demonstrated possible applications of the material in emerging soft robotics applications.

Asst Prof Tan was also involved in developing the first underwater self-healable conductive ionogel. Using this material, her team made touch sensors, pressure sensors and strain sensors, as well as a soft and self-healing ion printed circuit board through 3D printing.

“I am thrilled to be named in the MIT Review Innovators Under 35 Asia Pacific 2021, and I am humbled to join past recipients of TR35 whom I have long respected. Special thanks to those who had nominated me and supported my nomination. It has been very exciting working in the field of self-healing and stretchable electronics in NUS. I have the opportunity to collaborate with smart and productive people here, and I am grateful for the prolific interactions,” said Asst Prof Tan.