Four NUS innovators awarded NRF Fellowships
The four NUS recipients of the 2020 NRF Fellowship. From left, top row: Assistant Professor Gloryn Chia and Assistant Professor Jun Nishiyama. From left, bottom row: Assistant Professor Yvonne Gao and Assistant Professor Pieremanuele Canepa
The Singapore National Research Foundation (NRF) Fellowship Scheme is a competitive programme that seeks to attract and recruit outstanding young scientists from around the world to conduct independent research in Singapore.
By building up a pool of bright, passionate researchers in various fields of science and technology, it helps advance Singapore’s scientific and technological edge.
This year, four NUS researchers were awarded this prestigious fellowship with research projects ranging from neuroscience to quantum computing. This article highlights the NUS awardees and the exciting research they conduct.
Engineering personalised cancer vaccines
Assistant Professor Gloryn Chia from NUS Pharmacy is working to develop novel vaccines and stem cell therapies which could treat cancer and other human diseases.
“My research focuses on personalised ‘neoantigen’ vaccines, which are emerging as a highly promising immunotherapy technique,” she said.
Neoantigens are antigens that arise from mutations in cancer cells not present in normal cells. As such, they represent excellent targets for immunotherapy, due to their specific expression in tumour cells, and potential lack of side effects. By harnessing the power of new genomic technologies, Asst Prof Chia and her team are exploring the cancer neoantigen landscape, and in a patient-specific manner.
“Specifically, we aim to generate a highly versatile and scalable ‘off-the-shelf’ source of artificial antigen-presenting cells starting from genetically engineered induced pluripotent stem cells,” she added.
The overarching goal for Asst Prof Chia is to improve the efficacy of neoantigen vaccines, with the ultimate aim of translating the research findings into clinical practices and personal cancer treatments.
Decoding how brain signals lead to neuropsychiatric disorders
Assistant Professor Jun Nishiyama from the Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders programme at Duke-NUS Medical School conducts research on the molecular connections in the brain, and how their disruption can lead to neuropsychiatric disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our brain functions depend on proper connections between billions of neurons. The goal of our laboratory is to elucidate the molecular mechanisms underlying neuropsychiatric disorders at the level of synapses,” Asst Prof Nishiyama explained.
Asst Prof Nishiyama and his team develop novel imaging tools to probe the functionality of synapses – the junction between two nerve cells – based on cutting-edge molecular, genome-editing, and optical techniques.
“I combine innovative microscopy and genetic approaches to explore the mechanisms behind these molecular brain connections,” he said.
Enabling scalable quantum computation
“We build modular quantum devices to enable robust quantum computing and explore novel phenomena in quantum physics,” Asst Prof Gao explained.
By exploring the individual building blocks that can eventually go into a quantum computer, Asst Prof Gao has more control over their operation. This approach means that devices could be easily removed from the chain and fixed independently if they become damaged.
“Our modular quantum hardware has built-in programmability and quantum error correction to pave the way for a large-scale quantum computer,” she said.
Using this pioneering modular quantum hardware, Asst Prof Gao and her team can probe quantum effects at incredibly low temperatures, from quantum interference to multipartite interactions. They are also able to design specialised operations and circuit configurations to test new quantum algorithms.
Designing the next-generation of energy storage devices
Assistant Professor Pieremanuele Canepa from NUS Materials Science and Engineering applies computational methods to advance the understanding of materials for energy storage and conversion.
“Our research leverages the synergy between materials science, thermodynamics, electrochemistry and the power of supercomputers for the discovery of novel materials and molecules,” Asst Prof Canepa explained.
The models derived from his research contribute to the design of new materials for clean energy technologies, such as electrode materials for solid-state batteries.
The main challenges for practical solid-state devices include the utilisation of metal anodes, stabilisation of interfaces and the maintenance of physical contact.
“Utilising modelling, our research attempts to identify the root-cause of these problems, providing viable solutions,” he said.