Dr Ng Siew Bee, Senior Principal Investigator, Discovery, Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation, 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.

Our institute’s vision is to drive excellence in food and biotechnology innovation for economic and societal advancement, and we support this by developing capabilities for Singapore centred around efficacy, sustainability and safety.

My group forms a key part of A*STAR’s Singapore Integrative Biosystems & Engineering Research (SIBER) programme, which aims to develop technologies to support sustainable biomanufacturing of high value ingredients.

We also manage a large collection of plant specimens and natural microorganisms within A*STAR’s Natural Product Library (NPL), a rich biodiversity resource for the discovery of high value ingredients and genetic assets to support the development of biomanufacturing technologies.

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

This year my group completed a screening campaign to identify natural molecules that can prevent the propagation of microorganisms that cause spoilage in food and beverages, and thereby extend the shelf-life of such products.

We successfully discovered molecules that are effective against the spoilage microorganisms in various product formulations. Further development work is ongoing to evaluate their commercialisation potential and efficacy against the spoilage of other products including local fresh produce.

What is one unexpected learning from 2021?

Our group holds regular monthly journal club meetings to share interesting scientific articles that we have read or topics of interest. It is also an informal brainstorming session on how we can improve on published work or apply the principles and findings in our own research.

Through these meetings I learned about my staff’s scientific interests and understandings beyond their current assigned projects. I also discovered hidden talents among my staff.

This knowledge is very helpful in my decision making when assigning future projects to ensure that staff are given the opportunity to build their interest and further develop their competencies.

What’s your favourite memory from the past year?

The past year has been hectic and challenging with projects completing and new ones being initiated, some in new application areas. The various brainstorming sessions with group members for troubleshooting, and planning how to work within Covid-19 safe-management measures turned out to be teambuilding exercises that forged deeper mutual understanding and respect among team members.

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

A focus area of Singapore’s “30 by 30” objective is alternative proteins and their derivative products. Although the alternative protein space is currently dominated by plant proteins, fungal proteins are gaining popularity. For many years, there has been only one major brand that uses mycoprotein as a base for commercialised food products.

With the demand for alternative proteins, other companies are looking to up-scale and commercialise fermentation-enabled proteins for the production of sustainable food products. The huge collection of microbial strains within A*STAR’s Natural Product Library (NPL) provides us with a rich bioresource to explore the use of microbial fermentation to produce food ingredients and improve the quality of existing food materials.

To this end, my group has initiated discovery work to identify suitable microbial strains within NPL for food protein and functional ingredients production. We are in discussion with companies to further develop our initial findings. In addition, we are also investigating the use of suitable microbes to improve the nutritional value, taste and health benefits of commercial plant proteins using fermentation technologies.

What are your priorities for 2022?

We intend to explore the use of microbial fermentation to produce high value ingredients and food proteins. Therefore, one of the priorities for 2022 is to profile relevant subsets of our large microbial collection to identify suitable strains for various applications. Next, we need to develop the fermentation technologies to support alternative proteins and biomanufacturing of high value ingredients with our teams and partners.

Who are the mentors and heroes that inspire you?

My immediate supervisors in various organisations that I have worked for are my mentors. They encouraged me to dream big and take bold steps to fulfil those dreams. They also cautioned me not to forget my initial passion for science and continue to pay attention to details as I advance in my career.

What gets you up in the morning?

The anticipation of new data generated by the team that will open up possibilities or bring us one step closer to achieving our goals and mission.