June 2017 | Issue 30

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Meet Assoc Prof Eric Yap: tinker, tailor, solder, DIY

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By Nicole Lim, Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations

 

From young, Eric Yap found that the most meaningful learning happened outside the classroom. He relished taking part in science quizzes, deconstructing and tinkering with everything from clocks to computers, a hobby that turned into a life-long passion.

The LKCMedicine Associate Professor of Human & Microbial Genetics grew up in a house with a strong do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit. His father, a respiratory physician, was himself a passionate DIY man who was fascinated by how things work, a fascination his son shares.

Any black box was worth a closer inspection, but clocks and their intricate wind-up mechanisms held – and still hold – a particular charm for Assoc Prof Yap.

“My dream is to build a PCR machine which is made from clockwork. If we could design a mechanical timer that could operate the PCR cycling, then we could do DNA testing anywhere – even on the moon,” said Assoc Prof Yap.

But his tinkering didn’t always end as expected. When the first Apple clone computers came out just as Assoc Prof Yap was getting ready to sit his O Level exams, he got his hands on one and immediately started taking it apart.

“Bang! I was thrown across the room onto my bed and the house went dark. I had managed to electrocute myself fiddling with the insides of a computer! This was one of two electrocutions I had,” he confessed. The second incident happened while tinkering with a transformer.  

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Assoc Prof Yap has a passion for DIY projects and an innate curiosity for how things work

But it was not just mechanical things that fascinated him. Assoc Prof Yap also had a love for knowledge. While he learnt what he needed to excel in school exams, he sought out the limits of what we know about the world. Often, after school, he’d stop by the Toa Payoh library on his way home to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Fast forward through medical school and housemanship, and Assoc Prof Yap once again had an opportunity to indulge in his love of learning. His stellar academic record won him a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford to pursue a DPhil in molecular pathology, focusing on cancer genetics.

It was a humbling experience. “I felt like a drop in the ocean, in the midst of hyper-productive and uber-smart people,” said Assoc Prof Yap.

He added, “The other aspect of my maturing in Oxford was the realisation that knowledge has no boundaries. You could attend any lecture you wanted on campus, and during hall, your dinner companions were fellows from other disciplines, which always made for stimulating conversation.”

After completing his PhD, he extended his stay with a couple of postdoctoral fellowships, turning his originally three-year sojourn into a five-year adventure.

Assoc Prof Yap returned to Singapore at the age of 30, having to finally serve his National Service (NS) obligation. At that time, the Ministry of Defence was just setting up a new research institute, the Defence Medical Research Institute (DMRI). Assoc Prof Yap became its number two employee, paying back his NS obligation more than 10-fold.

“I became a staff officer setting up the administration, manpower, logistics and providing secretarial support to the board of trustees,” said Assoc Prof Yap.

 

Driving new technologies in Singapore

Alongside these responsibilities, Assoc Prof Yap continued working in the laboratory, building on the skills and knowledge he had acquired during his time at Oxford in genetics, DNA and diagnostics.

DNA testing and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which had first emerged in the mid- to late-1980s, were not yet in use in Singapore, so Assoc Prof Yap focused on applying molecular and DNA diagnostics in medicine and defence to create new, faster and more sensitive tests.

“It was tough in those days, people didn’t believe in PCR. They worried that it was too sensitive and liable to contamination,” he said.

By 2000, Assoc Prof Yap’s lab had established PCR testing as a viable alternative to older methods – assays and culturing – for rapid analysis of samples in Singapore. They started with melioidosis, a fatal lung infection caused by bacteria common in the region, and moved on to develop tests to detect more than 80 types of bacteria, viruses and parasites.

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Assoc Prof Yap and his team work to create better, cheaper and more sensitive diagnostic equipment

Their work was almost immediately put to the test. In 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, US media outlets and two senators were sent envelopes containing anthrax spores, a type of bacteria that can cause serious illness and even death. The letters were most likely sent by a senior US biodefence researcher and inspired numerous copycat incidents and hoaxes. Overnight, every white powder incident had to be treated as a potential bioterrorism attack.

Traditional tests would have required days if not weeks to produce definitive results, but with PCR technology an answer could be provided within hours.

“These PCR tests saved the day for national security. And molecular biology became established for pathogen detection and disease diagnostics,” said Assoc Prof Yap.

Merely two years later, Assoc Prof Yap’s team was once again called upon during a national emergency on a far greater scale. The laboratory was among a string of facilities from healthcare and research that were mobilised by the Ministry of Health to carry out testing for SARS. Viruses are slow and laborious to culture, so PCR was the most attractive option.

In addition, DMRI was the only institution at the time with the technical know-how to extract DNA from stool samples, which was a routine test for patients with SARS. 

Seeing his work go from an initial idea all the way through to implementation was a rewarding and satisfying experience.

“On NASA’s ladder of technical readiness levels, the work we did would start at rung two and go all the way to the top, which is rung nine, where it reaches the public as a service or product. It was exhilarating to see our work used in healthcare and defence,” said Assoc Prof Yap.

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Assoc Prof Yap continues to develop new ways to develop cheap and portable PCR machines

Despite the intense day-to-day workload, Assoc Prof Yap continued to pursue his own tinkering, thanks to a scheme that allowed researchers to spend about 10 per cent of their time and budget on their own research projects.

By then, the Defence Medical Research Institute had come under the wider umbrella of MINDEF’s DSO National Laboratories, which conducted research in many branches of engineering and physical sciences, and was renamed Defence Medical & Environmental Research Institute.

Assoc Prof Yap seized this opportunity to explore interdisciplinary ideas with colleagues from the many engineering branches of the organisation, taking his tinkering and understanding to a higher level.

“I’ve learnt a lot from the mechanical engineers and later the computational bioengineers,” said Assoc Prof Yap, who continues to work with some of them in NTU to this day.


Back to school

It was his desire to go back to the lab that made Assoc Prof Yap consider a change after more than two decades at DSO. Having benefitted from inspiring mentors – from secondary school teachers to Oxford professors to seniors at DSO – it was time to pay it forward, by inspiring the next generation, said Assoc Prof Yap.

He added, “Today, everyone can access the world’s best educational resources. But only the personal example and nurturing guidance of mentors can provide encouragement, inspiration and wisdom.”

This attitude has made him a popular mentor with many students who chose to undertake their research projects with him. Several LKCMedicine students completed their Scholarly Projects in Year 4 of the MBBS programme with him and he regularly hosts students from other NTU schools for their Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus (URECA) projects.

Many work with him to build better, cheaper and more sensitive diagnostic equipment using everyday household items and computer spare parts. They then test these devices in the field here and further afield.

But it is not just diagnostic equipment that Assoc Prof Yap enjoys tinkering with.

“There’s also a tinkering with the real frontiers of knowledge, for me that takes the form of sequence data,” said Assoc Prof Yap, who is fascinated by the vast data generated by the many fields of ‘omics’. This data can inform hypotheses and yield theories even before any experiments are conducted, moving the field into a similar theoretical realm as mathematics and physics, argues Assoc Prof Yap.

The scientist educator who earlier this year received the Nanyang Education Award in recognition of his inspiring teaching and mentoring, is motivated by this joy of learning. He said, “I enjoy spending time with students, to see them get enthused about discovery and learning. That makes me feel young again and is sufficient blessing in itself.”