by Adeline Chow
RGS Alumna Professor Jackie Ying (RGS, 81), Executive Director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) of A*STAR won the inaugural Mustafa Prize “Top Scientific Achievement” Award.
For this issue of RGS Report, RGS spoke to Prof Ying to find out about what makes her tick, what the life of a researcher is like and of course, what being a Rafflesian was like for her.
A t 49, Professor Jackie Yi-Ru Ying has the stamina of a teenager.
That is what you’d think to yourself as you hear stories of her long, and at times arduous, journey in research, which began when she was just a young girl studying at RGS. Her love for Science, sparked by the interesting
Chemistry labs at her alma mater and the effervescent nature of experiments, was further fuelled when she moved to the United States and was inspired by the teachers in her high school and university there. With that, she continued on to become a full professor at America’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology at 35, and was elected to Leopoldina (the German National Academy of Sciences) at just 39. When she returned to Singapore in 2003, she took on the uphill task of setting up the world’s first bioengineering and nanotechnology research institute, the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), which has today grown to become a leading institute in multidisciplinary research across science, engineering and medicine for breakthroughs to improve healthcare and quality of life, and in nurturing future generations of research talents.
Dressed in her usual work attire of suit and pants, along with a pair of track shoes, Prof Ying is all set for another run of research projects, showing no signs of slowing down her pace even after having just won the prestigious Mustafa Prize ‘Top Scientific Achievement’ Award for her work on the development of a material that delivers insulin automatically upon detection of high blood glucose levels (which is currently in phase 1 clinical trial). After all, Prof Ying’s work in research is never done, even after chalking up numerous accolades and awards in her career-span. She’s all set, together with her team, to discover the next breakthrough in scientific research, and to pass on the baton by nurturing young scientists, one running step at a time. The rest of us wait on with bated breath.
ABOUT THE MUSTAFA PRIZE
The Mustafa Prize is a top science and technology award granted to the top researchers and scientists of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states biennially. It seeks to encourage education and research and plays a pioneering role in developing regional relations between science and technology institutions working in the OIC member countries.
FONDEST MEMORIES OF STUDYING AT RGS
‘The fondest memories I have are those of the times spent with my classmates, especially those from my secondary two class! We had a lot of fun doing projects and performing together. Even when we moved on to secondary three, we still kept on referring to ourselves as the class 2/2 of 1980.’
THE RAFFLESIAN SPIRIT
‘It’s about everybody coming together, trying their best, cheering one another on, and also helping one another.’
RECEIVING THE INAUGURAL MUSTAFA PRIZE ‘TOP SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENT’ AWARD
‘It’s very gratifying to receive this award, because it recognises many years of hard work and effort my group members and I put into the research. Receiving an award on this scale also motivates us to push forward especially the very high-risk and really challenging projects. It is also heartening to note that for an institute that started from scratch 13 years ago, IBN is now recognised internationally. The award is also a further reaffirmation of the government’s faith in us, bearing in mind that when we talk about biomedical research, it takes a long time to bear fruit because the preclinical and clinical trials required.’
BUILDING SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
‘The person who hired me (Mr Philip Yeo, former A*STAR Chairman) really took a great leap of faith. My vision was to build an institute that would bring in the best people, both locally and overseas, people from different disciplines, to tackle complex problems together. IBN is quite different from most academic and research institutes because we are very multi-disciplinary. Therefore, it takes a lot of recruiting efforts to find the right people who are very energetic and dynamic, and at the same time, good team players who truly want to work with experts from different fields. I wanted to create a nurturing environment that will foster this kind of cross-collaboration.’
NURTURING FUTURE RESEARCH TALENTS
‘I’m very fortunate to have an old friend (Ms Noreena AbuBakar, Director, IBN) helping me out in this area. She started the Youth Research Program (YRP) in 2003, which has reached out to close to 95,000 students. We got many of them interested about research through open houses, seminars and workshops, and more than 2,300 students have done research attachments at IBN for at least one month full-time. It is a lot of hard work, organising the various activities and mentoring the students, but we really want our researchers to be involved in this because it is important to get the young people excited about doing research. We have been successful in this as a lot of our students have gone on to pursue studies and careers in science, engineering and medicine. It’s also about giving back. Because we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to do research, and we see the exciting options that are available in research for young people, we want to offer them more choices for their career paths.’
PROUDEST MOMENT IN LIFE
‘When my daughter was born in 2001. I was very proud when she was born; she is really someone who is very, very special, and I’m really glad that she gets to go to my alma mater as well.’
GETTING INSPIRED FOR NEW RESEARCH TOPICS
‘I get my inspiration by reading broadly, attending conferences and also talking to people. For example, when I’m doing my biomedical research, I try to understand what the medical doctors face as issues, and try to create better technologies that can help them in the early and accurate diagnosis of diseases, and to come up with better treatment.’
QUALITIES OF A GOOD RESEARCHER
‘I feel that our young people have become very grades-oriented and results-driven. When we do research, we are driven by a passion to make a difference. It’s not just about accomplishing results, but also trying to figure out what is the best way, the most effective way and the least expensive way. So we have to come up with many creative solutions, and at the same time, make them practical so that people can afford and use them. Some people may just want to have their work published in a top journal, but their work may not be very practical or useful. What we have undertaken is perhaps, a much more difficult path of wanting to make a societal impact, and that means a lot of hard work that people don’t see because it doesn’t culminate in publications. A good researcher should also have the right values and possess a deeper purpose in what they do, which in turn gives them meaning in their lives. Not everyone can attain this, and sometimes, if they cannot rise up to it, then it becomes a fight for credit, of who did what, and whose name should be put first in a publication. If you are in research for tangible, quick rewards, then you will give up very easily, because in this field, we don’t see the rewards for many, many years, in the sense of having something that can be commercialised and make a difference in people’s lives.’