Dr Neerja Karnani, Senior Principal Investigator, Head of Clinical Data Engagement, Data Hub Division, Bioinformatics Institute, A*STAR, Singapore

By Sean Nolan

Women in GovTech Special Report 2021.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

I use technology in biomedical sciences to improve diagnostics and develop interventions for chronic diseases, such as diabetes and mental health, that are currently on the rise in Singapore and across the globe.

Biomedical informatics and precision health research are currently at the forefront of improving future health span and human potential, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to these efforts within my organisation and Singapore.

One of the programmes that I am extremely proud of and personally connected to is the one on women and child health. I have worked on this programme for almost nine years, deploying bioinformatics and clinical data applications to identify early risk factors and interventions that can help improve the physical and mental wellbeing of expecting mothers and their offspring.

I am also extremely delighted to be a part of A*STAR and scientific community that provides a fantastic opportunity to work in an integrated research environment comprising of basic scientists, clinicians, public sector and policy makers, which is a strong accelerator of applied research in public health.

What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?

The ongoing pandemic is a strong reminder of inter-individual variation in response to infections. Some individuals may develop serious illness from the virus, while others stay asymptomatic.  Clearly, susceptibility to an infection or disease has a lot to do with an individual’s genome and our body’s unique response to environmental exposures.

Though ample clinical and research data exists that can help understand differential vulnerability to health adversities, more can be done to harmonize these fragmented data to meet precision health objectives. My focus this year is to facilitate this objective by not only engaging data from multiple organisations and health clusters, but also developing a prototype for next generation mobile applications that provides a patient health journey and actionable intervention roadmap for clinicians.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

With the ongoing pandemic we are witnessing a historical event in progress that will leave us with many lessons and takeaways on resilience, innovation and sustainability. Like many of my fellow colleagues and family members, I have experienced the unimagined, sought solutions for the unexpected, and learnt to innovate and adapt to challenging situations at both work and in personal life.

It was also a year of celebrating integrated efforts, not just locally, but globally. I hope this unprecedented experience continues to inspire strong ties among nations to come together and combat the escalating burden of chronic diseases and climate change.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

When my 13-year old got vaccinated and felt safe in the pandemic. There was much uncertainty on when the vaccine will be developed, how effective will it be, and if it will be safe for the younger ones. The quick sharing of resources and data across the globe,  and the timely execution of effective policies was a major leap in safeguarding the health of our loved ones.

What’s a tool or technique you’re excited to explore in 2022?

I am very keen on developing applications that enhance personalised healthcare experience. These include personalised health dashboards, and the use of metaverse in patient-clinician interactions. These tools will not only empower individuals to take informed decisions on their everyday health, but will also increase scientific literacy to make better health choices.

What are your priorities for 2022?

Innovate and create customised health GPS apps that are powered by next generation diagnostic tests developed from precision medicine research and electronic health records. Tie up these applications with the real-world data collected by public health sectors to have a more holistic and an up-to-date assessment of an individual’s health journey. I hope to also build personalised  AI alert apps that could provide individuals with an opportunity to act early on the approaching health adversities.

Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?

I am inspired by individuals who think beyond the norm and are risk takers. One of my favourite quotes is from Steve Jobs - ‘Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity - not a threat’. The recent pandemic triggered a little inventor in everyone to overcome the unexpected challenges.

My inspirations also come from my day-to-day interactions with family and colleagues at work. I enjoy reading books on human behaviours and cognitive evolution, learning how our ability to create imagined realities have come into existence over time.

What gets you up in the morning?

Curiosity, outstanding questions… and my 13 year old.