How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
Modern medicine has successfully increased our life expectancy. However, it doesn’t guarantee a high quality of life.
To lead a healthy life, we are advised to eat more fruits and vegetables, which contain many micronutrients that can protect our immune system, defend against harmful bacteria, and prevent metabolic diseases. However, these micronutrients are usually present in tiny amounts, and many people do not consume enough of them.
My job is to make these micronutrients in large quantities so that they become readily available to all walks of life without straining the earth’s resources. I am a metabolic engineer who optimises bioprocesses to produce functional molecules which are applicable for food, flavours and fragrances, cosmetics, nutrition, and pharmaceuticals.
What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?
Our technology has been successfully licensed to a local spin-off company, Fermatics, to commercialise the bioprocesses my team has developed. I am fortunate to lead a team of highly dynamic and hard-working researchers to bring lab research to the industry.
This year, we have achieved remarkable breakthroughs in bioprocess development and attained a highly competitive product tier. In this project, we have developed a robust and reproducible bioprocess to synthesise a raspberry-flavour molecule.
With our process, 1 gram of the molecule can be produced from a 1.5 L bioreactor. In contrast, it would require 100 tons of raspberries, or 20 hectares of agricultural land, to obtain 1 gram of the molecule.
Hence, our technology is more efficient, economical, and sustainable. Apart from reducing the cost of manufacturing the molecule, this technology significantly saves precious resources such as land and water for agriculture and livestock.
What is one unexpected learning from 2021?
There have been many surprises when we were trying to develop bioprocesses. However, what amazes me more is the people involved in the process. In research, there will always be setbacks and failures. My team has kept the spirit high and is eager to try again.
During the uncertain period of the Covid-19 pandemic, my team has adapted quickly to the changes and made swift adjustments according to the needs of projects. The teamwork is remarkable. I am blessed to work with a brilliant team!
What’s your favourite memory from the past year?
My favourite memory has always been the care and love I felt from my team, especially in the face of failure. I remembered the disappointing moment when my grant application was unsuccessful.
It was the encouragement from my colleagues and team members that made me regain confidence and face my setback. I felt deeply loved and motivated by my team members; they are just like family.
What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?
Lab automation to speed up the engineering process is exciting! Our biofoundry can screen >2,000 enzymatic reactions each day. As compared to manual process, which usually screens < 100 enzymatic reactions per day, lab automation gives higher throughput and saves precious manpower for developmental work. I am looking forward to automating as many protocols as possible next year!
What are your priorities for 2022?
I would like to devote more time to training and nurturing next-generation scientists. I am already looking forward to welcoming my first Ph.D. student into my lab next year. This will be the beginning of a special journey for me.
Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?
Both my Ph.D. and Post-Doc supervisors are excellent mentors. My Ph.D. supervisor, Associate Prof Too Heng-Phon, always said to us: “Do something that changes the world.” And he has demonstrated that by building a cancer diagnostic company that impacts the world.
My post-doc supervisor, Dr. Nic Lindley, is amazingly knowledgeable. He seems to know everything under the sun. Despite being the director of an institute and assuming multiple roles, one could always count on his efficient and insightful advice.
My team is another source of inspiration for me. Their tenacity, hard work and high spirit keep me motivated to work hard as well.
Lastly, my husband is my hero and my pillar of support. I am inspired by his thirst for knowledge and ability to explain complex concepts in simple terms. He has practically taught himself to be a data scientist and now is leading a team of 30 scientists in a cancer diagnostic company.
What gets you up in the morning?
Certainly, the excitement of the research work keeps me up in the morning.