NUS scientists lauded as outstanding mentors in Nature Awards

Three Singaporean professors from NUS were honoured by prestigious scientific journal Nature for their commitment towards nurturing the next generation of scientists. Professor Lim Chwee Teck received the lifetime achievement award, while Professor Koh Woon Puay and Professor Tai E Shyong were joint-recipients of the mid-career award.

The Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science is rotated annually amongst different countries. The 2022 edition marks the first time that the Awards was hosted by Singapore – or a Southeast Asian nation – since it was first introduced in 2005.

Editor-in-Chief of Nature and chair of the judging panel, Dr Magdalena Skipper, said, “The Nature Award for Mentoring in Science recognises those mentors who dedicate their time to supporting and enhancing the careers of young researchers. This is an opportunity for mentors to play an integral part in the professional development of their mentees – adding support and experience to knowledge. I am delighted that through this award we can recognise the importance of those that are empowering researchers in the early stages of their careers and the value this adds in both the short and long term to the whole research community.”

Leaving a positive legacy

Lifetime Achievement Award: Professor Lim Chwee Teck

Prof Lim's indefatigable support for his students and peers was evident in the profusion of comments he received on LinkedIn when he shared the good news of his award on 11 May 2023. 

Professor Terence Ow, a former classmate and now a Professor in Information Systems at Marquette University in Wisconsin, US, described Prof Lim as "the same person I met when we were students at NJC. Humble and intelligent human being. Full of good ideas." He wrote that without Prof Lim's coaching and guidance, he would not have "passed his exam in Computer Science and make it to university".

Prof Lim’s commitment to the growth and development of those around him is a recurring theme in his decades-long journey as a researcher and educator. To date, he has mentored more than 30 Masters and 50 PhD students, as well as 20 postdoctoral fellows. “Serving as a mentor to others is itself a gratifying experience that provides opportunities to make a difference and positive impact on someone’s life,” Prof Lim reminisced.  

When asked to highlight a few of his more prolific mentees, he felt that all his mentees have been prolific and successful in their own ways. For example, some have become academic members in universities around the world, some are corporate executives and a number are even entrepreneurs starting up their own companies.

The judging panel for the Nature Awards noted that apart from his holistic approach and embracing of diversity as well as his outstanding support during the peak of COVID infections and restrictions, Prof Lim's focus on entrepreneurial and tech-transfer mentorship also stood out as a key form of support for his mentees. A serial entrepreneur, Prof Lim has co-founded six startup companies which commercialised technologies developed in his lab. This prolific researcher and inventor from the Department of Biomedical Engineering under the NUS College of Design and Engineering as well as the Mechanobiology Institute at NUS has also received more than 120 awards and honours together with his team.

As the Director of the NUS Institute for Health Innovation & Technology (iHealthtech), which aims to develop healthcare solutions and technologies and bring them from bench to bedside, Prof Lim understands the need for translational research – iHealthtech has incubated and spun off five start-ups to date.

Dr Ramesh Ramji, who received a PhD in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering from NUS in 2012, and is currently a co-founder of a biotech start-up based in California, said that Prof Lim had always “been an inspiration for translational science”.

And the importance of finding the right mentors cannot be overstated. Prof Lim encourages early career researchers to seek out those "who will not only provide guidance or impart knowledge, but also is an inspiring role model, pillar of support and advocate for the mentee so that they can achieve their full potential."

Prof Lim also acknowledged the University’s role in fostering the right environment for both students and educators. “My sincere gratitude to NUS for all the support given so that I can better mentor our next generation of researchers, engineers and entrepreneurs.”

For those looking to mentor others, Prof Lim observed that “we can do this not only by offering guidance, support and encouragement, but also building relationships based on trust, respect and mutual learning that can last a lifetime. In fact, many of my mentees and their family members have become my lifelong friends."

"In the end, it’s about leaving a positive legacy." 

2023 0516 Nature Awards - Prof KOH Woon Puay

Building life-affirming relationships

Mid-career Award: Professor Koh Woon Puay

Prof Koh understands the importance of resilience and the socio-cultural factors that allow us to live longer and healthier lives.

Earlier this year, the senior scientist in the Healthy Longevity Translational Research Programme at NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, together with her team, discovered that better psychological adaptation to declining health may offset the impact of ageing. The study found that elderly Singaporeans who were defined as ‘frail but resilient’ had a significantly lower mortality risk than who were ‘frail and dejected’. In other words, those with poor physical health but reported high levels of happiness with life and social engagements lived longer than those who didn’t.

These lessons are also woven into Prof Koh’s approach to mentorship, which centres on building authentic and mutually-affirming relationships with those around her. “Solving problems together with them teach me to make new discoveries and create innovative ideas; encouraging them to overcome failures reinforce resilience in me; celebrating their success with them, in turn, gives me joy beyond my own success; and being able to develop personal and authentic relationship with them gives me a deeper appreciation for friendship and enriches my own life.”

“A mentor for life” is how those who nominated Prof Koh described her. The judges were impressed by her caring, constructive and candid style of mentoring. Her focus on the importance of collaborations as well as women in scientific leadership stood out as two highlights of her mentoring approach.

Prof Koh, who holds a concurrent appointment with the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, draws inspiration from the grit and resilience demonstrated by her students, some of whom faced considerable constraints and challenges while pursuing their studies. She shared that “a few had to juggle first-time motherhood and research work” while the clinician-scientists that she mentors “pursued their challenging research endeavours with unwavering commitment, despite facing limited resources in time and support”.

As a society, we are often socialised to talk about our successes, but Prof Koh believes that our struggles and setbacks can be instructive too. “I strive to help my mentees develop attributes such as resilience, humility and integrity, as well as professional skills such as collaboration, leadership and team-building. I share my life experiences and lessons with my mentees with the intent of saving them from hardknocks and blindspots in their paths.”

Prof Koh credits the University for fostering a rigorous yet supportive environment that served as a catalyst for her personal and professional development. "NUS is the place where I have met several mentors who have influenced and taught me what it really means to be a mentor.”

She added that she is a better mentor today because of her own mentors – Emeritus Professor Lee Hin Peng (NUS) and Professor Mimi Yu (USA). “They shaped my academic path and imbued in me their compasses and value systems which have helped me through my own challenges. They are models I take after, even as I carve out my own mentoring styles for my mentees now. I hope that I am able to positively influence my mentees to bring out the best in them, just as my mentors have done for me.”

2023 0516 Nature Awards - Prof Tai E Shyong

Broadening the definition of success

Mid-career Award: Professor Tai E Shyong

Prof Tai, who is from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at NUS, has a healthy regard for failure. In the dual pressure-cooker environment of Singapore and academia, Prof Tai regularly reminds others that "they need to measure their lives 'as a whole', and not... through the narrow lens of success as defined by their current job."

Applying this principle to himself as well as those whom he mentored, Prof Tai is not worried that those who learn under him would surpass him one day. “I have no fear that those I mentor will become better than I am at my job, or even end up as my boss (as has already happened) because that is not how I measure my own life. In fact, I see their success as a measure of my own success,” he said.

The judges for the Nature Awards were impressed by Prof Tai’s tailor-made approach to each mentoring opportunity which leverages their unique skill sets that complement those of others. His style, they’ve noted, focuses on creating an environment that enables others to thrive and providing encouragement to stretch his mentees’ abilities.

Dr Khoo Chin Meng can attest to this. The Senior Consultant Endocrinologist from the National University Hospital describes how Prof Tai's gentle counsel was instrumental in reframing how he handled the detours, curveballs and roadblocks that marked his journey as a clinician-scientist.

"There have been failures in my research career, but E Shyong’s mentorship transformed how I look at each of them. I changed the direction of my PhD project in the middle of my graduate studies and re-started my research direction in nutrition and food science. I have learned to look at these events as not an end but an opportunity to learn to do things differently from the rest."

The image of a lone scientist labouring in the dimly lit lab is an outdated one. Prof Tai understands the value of communication and collaboration, and encourages those he mentors to deepen their engagement with the wider community, to develop the skills "that will allow them to understand others around them, build their own network, and influence others".

"In today’s world, some of the most impactful science is not done in an individual lab, but through large consortia, and these skills are a key part of success," said Prof Tai.

As a mentor, Prof Tai does not attempt to make anyone in his own image. "I see it as my role to ask the questions that will allow them (and me) to understand what drives them, and what they hope to achieve in life. Only then can I offer advice to help them achieve these goals," he recounted.

It is not a coincidence that all three recipients of the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science are from the University. Prof Tai believes "that NUS provides us with the environment where we have access to some of the brightest minds in the world, and gives us the time and space to help them develop to their full potential."

The highly-regarded endocrinologist and scientist also encourages those he had mentored to be equally generous of their own time and resources in mentoring others. “As we progress in our own careers, the legacy we leave is often not in the science, but in the quality of individuals who follow (and overtake) us,” he said.