June 2018 | Issue 36
Micro steps lead to big dreams

Sean Firoz_Byline.jpgBy Sean Firoz, Senior Executive, Communications & External Relations

While most 10-year-old boys spend their time outdoors playing football and catching spiders, young Wee Soon Keong was exploring the cellular details of our world and the human body with Ms Frizzle on The Magic School Bus, an animated programme to teach science to children, or getting up close with nasty bugs from the Horrible Science book series. "I was very curious about science, especially all the experiments I did in school while growing up," said Soon Keong, who is now pursuing a PhD in Microbiology at LKCMedicine, a decade on.

From flashy science books to tinkering in the lab as a kid, Soon Keong carried his passion forward, as he started to get into microbiology when enrolled in Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Molecular Biotechnology. His first encounter with molecular biology research was during an internship at Changi General Hospital, where he investigated bacteria, specifically multi-drug resistant ones. The research aspect of his polytechnic days increased in prominence when he enrolled in NTU's Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Biological Sciences after his National Service. Although his undergraduate years gave him a more in-depth look into molecular biology, Soon Keong spent more time in the classroom than in the laboratory.

Searching for a more hands-on experience, Soon Keong went for the Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus (URECA) programme during his second year, which gives undergraduates the opportunity to pursue independent research under the supervision of a professor over a 11-month period, which was exactly what Soon Keong needed to scratch that itch for laboratory experience. "The URECA experience provided us with additional opportunities to do research beyond school," said Soon Keong.

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Finding his passion in molecular biology, Soon Keong presents his work titled “Diagnosing drug resistant bacterial infections through cost effective technologies for rapid point of care testing in low resource settings” at UPresent of UA Global Summit, Dublin, Ireland.

Having great interest in bacteria and microbial genetics, Soon Keong came under the supervision of LKCMedicine Associate Professor of Human and Microbial Genetics Eric Yap, which was the start of his journey with LKCMedicine. During his time in the programme, Soon Keong created a low-cost rapid diagnostics platform for anti-drug resistant bacteria, weaving his second love for robotics into the project. Costing just $400 to build, Soon Keong's diagnostic robot is able to autonomously perform repetitive functions in the lab, such as the pipetting of liquids. Working on this project exposed him to poster presentations and conferences, giving him the opportunity to present his work to the scientific community.

The aspiring microbiologist also tested his project in the field, during a trip to Davao in the Philippines, with his fellow URECA mates and medical students as part of their Overseas Community Involvement Project​. "I was able to further refine my project, and it's a good starting platform to take this even further," said Soon Keong.

His URECA project won the Regional (Asia) Life Sciences category at The Undergraduate Awards in 2017, and he was able to attend​​ the ceremony in Dublin, Ireland. This proved that his hard work had paid off and is recognised on an international level.

Having played a big part in his undergraduate life and scientific career, the URECA programme holds a special place in his heart. Soon Keong said, "I learnt how to be independent, as we had to manage our time between picking up lab skills and ongoing classes in school."

Soon after graduating, Soon Keong continued to work in A/Prof Yap's lab as a research assistant, helping out on various projects which in return, broadened his skills in the lab. Working in A/Prof Yap's lab was liberating for Soon Keong, as he had plenty of room for creativity and independence.

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Soon Keong and his colleagues enjoy a day out during a ​lab retreat

"A/Prof Yap is very nurturing, and he gave us the space to be creative and try different methods during the research process," said Soon Keong.

The four months spent working in A/Prof Yap's lab cemented his passion in microbial genetics research. When the time came to choose a school to pursue his PhD, it was only natural that he chose LKCMedicine.

In his first year as a postgraduate student, Soon Keong felt that there was more to learn from his home away from home. His class of nine is a mixture of clinicians and researchers from different backgrounds, which helps to broaden his perspective on different aspects of medicine and what happens in the front line, having never had the opportunity to see patients. What sets the LKCMedicine PhD programme apart from others, is that students are able to go on a two-week attachment to hospitals and clinics that match their interest. In Soon Keong's case, he had the chance to be attached to the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).

"I get to see patients on the wards and observe practices on the consultation rounds, such as specialist referrals, and even a department teaching lesson. I realised that the challenges surrounding medicine has a more narrative element to it than in the lab," said Soon Keong, when asked what his experience was like having to be at the patient's bedside for the first time.

The eye-opening experience gave Soon Keong more appreciation of the clinicians and healthcare professionals' hard work when facing patients in the wards. He's bringing back this experience to the bench. 

Besides attending classes, Soon Keong continues to work in A/Prof Yap's lab as part of his first lab rotation, now as a Postgraduate Researcher. This enables him to continue working on his projects, as well as embark on new ones for his PhD, focusing on antimicrobial resistance. Although in its infant stage, Soon Keong hopes that his topic could be further refined by looking out for trends in the scientific community, reading up on relevant material and experiences from his clinical attachment. "I'm trying to explore different angles to the subject matter, and in June I'll be going to a conference in the US to find out more about what's happening out there," said Soon Keong.

But this PhD researcher does not hide in the lab all day. Much like how he applied robotics into his URECA project, Soon Keong loves to tinker with and teach robotics. As one of the founding members of a robotics education start-up called Nullspace, Soon Keong goes to several primary and secondary schools to teach students how to code and build robots. Firmly believing that coding has a use for everyone, and not just computer geeks, Soon Keong hopes that future generations will be fluent in coding and do wonders with it.

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​Soon Keong conducting a parent-child coding workshop in Jurong Regional Library

Besides teaching robotics, Soon Keong gives back to his alma mater, Anglican High School (AHS), as Vice Chairman of the AHS Alumni Association. This role bridges alumni and the school, through events and outreach. "AHS has given me so many opportunities in my education and as a student leader," said Soon Keong.

This act of giving back earned him the chance to also be the Vice President of the LKCMedicine Graduate Student Club. Newly inducted into the club, Soon Keong hopes that through this role, he can meet the needs of the graduate students in LKCMedicine. "As a committee, we hope to increase the awareness of the PhD programme and be part of the LKCMedicine family," said Soon Keong.

The sky is the limit for this aspiring researcher, as Soon Keong hopes to be a Principal Investigator or Professor in his field of expertise someday. And in the spirit of giving back, Soon Keong said, "I feel strongly about education and giving back to the community, and I hope to educate and nurture the next generation of scientists."