February 2018 | Issue 34
Passion for science takes centre stage at inaugural International Young Investigators Symposium

From following your dreams to learning how to fail and being open to any lobang (career opportunities), the aspiring young scientists attending the inaugural International Young Investigators Symposium on 1 February heard many inspiring stories from the stellar line-up of speakers. At the same time, they also heard about the wide ranging scientific questions pursued by some of the world’s brightest young minds.

Kicking off the day’s programme, LKCMedicine Dean Professor James Best welcomed everyone to the Experimental Medicine Building (EMB) Learning Studio located on NTU Singapore’s main campus, commenting how fitting it is that the symposium is hosted and organised by LKCMedicine. The young medical school has placed strong emphasis on attracting early career investigators both from Singapore and overseas.

Today, he pointed out, we have access to better tools to pursue scientific enquiry than ever before. NTU and LKCMedicine have invested in these tools, making it an exciting time for investigators pursuing their research at the medical school.

“In science, you have the opportunity not just to inherit the future but to shape the future,” Prof Best concluded as he handed the floor to the Guest-of-Honour NTU Provost and Vice-President for Academic Professor Ling San.

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Science’s influential role in determining the future is nowhere as evident as in NTU’s meteoric rise through international university and research rankings. And at the heart of this lies the university’s unwavering dedication to and development of its people, said Prof Ling in his address.

In concluding his address, Prof Ling encouraged the aspiring young scientists in the audience to have their own dreams and chart a course towards achieving this dream. “But make sure you mitigate it with a good measure of humility,” he advised.

His address was followed by the morning’s inspirational speaker, LKCMedicine adjunct Professor Maurice van Steensel, who was introduced by NTU Senate Chair and LKCMedicine Vice-Dean for Faculty Affairs Professor Michael Ferenczi.

In his lecture, Prof van Steensel talked candidly and passionately about why he loves science – it makes him feel shiok (gratified) – and the lessons he learnt along the way.

Scientists, particularly at the beginning of their career, are at the bottom of the income ladder, often lagging behind their peers in other industries, he said matter-of-factly. “[But] if you do really well in science, materially, you’ll be cared for,” said Prof van Steensel.

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To succeed and pursue excellent science, he had five pieces of advice:
1. The coin of science is rejection, but don’t despair
2. Show true grit, be persistent, listen to feedback
3. There are many ways to get to your goal
4. Find yourself a mentor or several. They are great resources and can even take some of the flak for you
5. Beware of fashion, find what you are passionate about

Next, four young investigators, who hailed from China, Germany, the UK and US, shared their work and career advice. Throughout their presentations, good mentorship emerged as one of two central themes. BIH Johanna Quandt Professor for Hypertension & Molecular Biology of Endocrine Tumours Ute Scholl distilled the qualities of a good mentor to someone who:
1. Regularly publishes good quality science and loves science
2. Is smart, demanding and nurturing
3. Is established, but not too old, so when you’re looking for a faculty position they can help
4. Offers their time freely
5. Is a good role model

The other theme was a sense of being in the right place at the right time, a theme that resonated strongly with the young scientists in the audience. LKCMedicine Nanyang Assistant Professor Xia Yun recalled that after completing her PhD, she was inspired to move into the field of stem cell biology and got a position at the Salk Institute.

“It was the perfect opportunity. Salk was just making its name in stem cell biology and he [Professor Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte] offered me an area where I could work on fundamental biological processes that are relevant to human health,” she said.

But being in the right place at the right time isn’t just down to fate. Meticulous planning and an eye to the future can help you be in the right place at the right time. 

“As soon as you embark on a career in research, you live by the clocks of different funding agencies and grant making and fellowship bodies. Know what the opportunities are and plan well ahead,” said Asst Prof Guan Xue Li, who benefitted from the Ambizione intermediate career grant while working in Switzerland. This grant together with LKCMedicine’s and her mentors’ support in turn helped her secure NTU’s prestigious Nanyang Assistant Professorship.

And of course, the publish-or-perish clock often ticks loudest among them. “You have to manage your time and work efficiently in the lab during your postdoc that’s the key phase to getting your own lab,” said

LKCMedicine Nanyang Assistant Professor Yasunori Saheki, who discovered this first hand. For his postdoc, Asst Prof Saheki had to move from New York to New Haven. The change in environment came as a bit of a shock, and with not much to do on the weekends, he often travelled back to New York.

“But then I realised that my experiments weren’t working out because I wasn’t spending much time in the lab, I wasn’t experimenting enough. Once I started spending more time in the lab, I started to see results.” But luckily, he met a fellow newcomer to New Haven who was equally keen to spend some time outside the lab, and Asst Prof Saheki got the best of both worlds.

After an industry-sponsored lunch, the audience gathered again at the Learning Studio for the third session of the day that showcased Singapore EMBO Young Investigators’ work. This session presented a change of gear from rising international spars to leading local researchers. Chaired by EMBO member and LKCMedicine Professor of Developmental Biology Philip Ingham FRS, the audience heard from three speakers, who each shared data from their latest projects which ranged from the very early stages of mammalian life to virus replication and using insights from extremely rare genetic conditions as a window to understanding common and complex diseases.

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Taking the final slot on Day 1 of the symposium, LKCMedicine Nanyang Assistant Professor Luo Dahai talked about his work on RNA virus and host interaction, focusing in particular on flavivirus replication. Closing his talk with a final piece of advice for aspiring scientists, Asst Prof Luo urged them to believe in their work, but embrace the fact that failure will be common currency, echoing Prof van Steensel’s advice in the morning.

Wrapping up the day’s presentations and discussions, LKCMedicine Executive Vice-Dean Professor Lionel Lee said that this event was an inspired idea – a symposium organised by young investigators for young investigators. “And we really felt that this is some symposium to encourage,” said Prof Lee.

He added that the conference serves three purposes: it informs attendees on the latest science, encourages them to interact and make friendships for life, and inspire each other.

The second day of the symposium was a closed-door roundtable workshop, where aspiring scientists and students received advice from senior faculty on their projects and career.

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