October 2015 | Issue 20
Three LKCMedicine students have a URECA moment

Three LKCMedicine Year 2 students have been invited to participate in NTU’s prestigious Undergraduate Research Experience on Campus (URECA) programme this year.

Aletheia Chia, Darren Wong and Brian Ho have all been invited to take part in the 11-month university-wide programme that aims to cultivate a research culture among the most academically able undergraduates. They will also be given the title of NTU President Research Scholar.

Darren said, “It is an honour and privilege to have been invited to pursue an undergraduate research project under the URECA framework! I am especially grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to pursue translational research because of the hands-on nature of the project, and the visceral satisfaction that one derives from building something from scratch.”

All three of them decided to join LKCMedicine Associate Professor of Human and Microbial Genetics Eric Yap working on projects to make laboratory testing and analysis of DNA and bacteria more accessible and affordable.

Echoing Darren’s sentiments, Brian said, “I was particularly drawn to [Assoc Prof Yap], who works on translational research of rapid diagnostics – bringing faster and cheaper diagnostic tools to the outside community. Beyond any of the other projects, this particular one was promising because I might be able to physically design and create something that could be of use: an inexpensive, portable PCR machine.”

The students, who are joined by two URECA students from the School of Biological Sciences, will start off with an intensive and broad-based course on enabling technical skills. These will cover DNA analysis, microbial culture, 3D printing and more. The course will be delivered in a hands-on-training (HOT) format, where students work on a micro-project and learn the skills along the way. “These introductions will provide the framework for further self-exploration and honing of techniques,” said Assoc Prof Yap.

The 10-hour weekly commitment is a big one for the already busy medical students. But Darren, who will be working on low-cost DNA analysis for third world diagnostics and development, acknowledges that the training schedule is “comprehensive” and that it will take some time to get familiarised with the software and hardware that he will be using. “However, most of the programming can be performed at home at our leisure and that really helps with juggling reading medicine and conducting research,” he said.

After the initial training, the students will go on a series of site visits, discussions and explore real-world situations where medical technologies could help. “This will help them discover specific gaps and opportunities that laboratory medicine can help fill, and they will get coaching on how to define goals, devise appropriate methodologies, and craft measurable and feasible deliverables,” said Assoc Prof Yap.

From there, the students will develop, design and make their own versions of accessible lab techniques and equipment, be it a PCR machine or diagnostic device. At the end of the academic year, they will have the chance to present and publish papers and pilot their findings and innovations. Assoc Prof Yap said, “We are planning some field trips next year, where they will trial their innovations in a primary healthcare and public health setting.”

This tangible goal is what attracted the students to complete their projects with Assoc Prof Yap. Aletheia, who will be working on developing techniques to perform culture, microscopy and bacterial analysis in a DIY setting, said, “I was drawn to Assoc Prof Yap’s vision of democratising PCR and other molecular diagnostic techniques that are often limited to high budget labs, and working towards making them accessible to a larger audience with broader applications.”

For Brian, research gives him the joy of thinking, designing and creating. He said, “It’s arts and craft combined with math and science. This time, however, I hope that in addition to that, my work will culminate in a PCR machine that will be meaningful to someone else’s life.”

But it is not just the students who hope to get something out of this programme. Beyond the URECA programme, Assoc Prof Yap is actively involved in setting up more short-term research attachments for a wider group of students so that they can benefit from a more holistic and cutting-edge undergraduate education. But he confessed to another reason for participating in such projects, saying, “I have a selfish reason as well – to learn! Some of the projects we’ll do together will benefit from GenY or GenZ input – in the areas of social networking, pervasive IT and cross-generational outreach.”