Dr Jackie Ying – An epitome for young scientific minds

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The conference on emerging technologies that matter, EmTech Asia 2017 was recently held at the Marina Bay Sands, Singapore on 14th and 15th of February 2017.  This year, EmTech Asia brought together global thought leaders, CEOs and CTOs, startups, scientists, R & D heads and investors from various fields of technology. This has always been a platform where people inspire each other through their innovations leading to collaborations.

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Photo credit – Emtech Asia

 Day 1 of Emtech Asia began with some excellent talks by scientists like Prof. Jackie Y. Ying from IBN, A*STAR who spoke on Nanostructured Materials for Energy and Biomedical Applications.”  Her group has designed and functionalized nanostructured materials for drug delivery, nanomedicine, biosensor, cell culture and tissue engineering applications. She gave an insight on the synthesis of metallic, metal oxides, semiconducting and organic nanoparticles, and nanocomposites of controlled size, morphology and architecture.

In a conversation with Biotechin.Asia, Prof. Jackie Y. Ying, Executive Director of IBN, spoke about her research and her quest to encourage young scientific minds.

What do you think would be the contributions of nanotechnology for a greener world, say in the next 3 years?

Our green chemistry and energy teams are working on catalysts to adsorb carbon dioxide, and also to convert them to useful chemicals. This is one of the ways in which nanotechnology is evolving to contribute to a greener world.

How well has one of your most prominent work on (−)-Epigallocatechin-3-O-gallate (EGCG), the major ingredient of green tea possessing anticancer and DNA-protective effects expedited in terms of clinical trials?

We are currently scaling up our EGCG technology and performing more animal studies on it before we can proceed to the next step, which  is clinical trials. The entire process is expensive and requires a significant amount of funding. We hope to be able to bring our technology to patients in 3-5 years.

Antibiotics are under the radar system with problems caused by drug- resistant bacteria. How has nanomedicine helped combat this hurdle?

Our team is actively working on antimicrobial nanomedicines that will be more effective than current technologies. Current antibiotics kill bacteria without destroying the cell membrane so the intact cell structure that remains would allow new drug-resistant bacteria to grow. Our polymer-based materials, on the other hand, penetrate the bacterial cell membrane to destroy it completely, preventing the formation of drug-resistant bacteria. This novel feature of our technology provides us with an upper hand in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria.

Prof Ying, why was research your core interest rather than a top management role in corporate life?

I love to think about different problems and come up with innnovative solutions or approaches to solve them. A good researcher has to be part innovator and part entrepreneur in order to come up with something novel that will make an impact on society. Through research, I am able to pursue my passion for science and learn new things every day. This intellectual stimulation is exactly why I love doing research.

How easy was it for you as a woman to be a pioneer in an evolving field like nanotechnology?

Research requires a lot of hard work and perseverance. The nanotechnology and engineering fields are still often dominated by men, and this gives me added impetus to work harder. Although we may be a minority, women are very good at juggling multiple roles and managing people from diverse backgrounds. These are important and necessary skills to work successfully in a multidisciplinary research environment.

With so many accolades and world firsts, which was the moment that was closest to your heart?

 The Mustafa Prize* has been one of my most memorable awards. Research is something that I have been passionate about and it is an honor to be recognized for my work. However, the most fulfilling part of my journey has been our impact on young scientists. At IBN, we have put in significant efforts since 2003 to nurture our future generation to share our vision and mission to make a difference through scientific research.

* She was the inaugural winner of the Mustafa Prize – Top Scientific AchievementAward in 2015 for her research in bio-nanotechnology. The laureate of this science and technology award receives a certificate, an engraved medal and US$500,000 in prize money.

Do you have a role model or inspiration? Who has been your inspiration to dream big?

When I was younger, my father and teachers influenced and guided my career path. However, when you reach a certain point in your life, you realize that the only one who can constantly motivate you is yourself. You have to carve your own path.

What was the main driving force in establishing the Youth Research Programme at IBN?

The main goal has been to mentor young minds to discover their passion for science and how they can make an impact through their work in this field. Working with the young has always been fun and brings great satisfaction, especially when you can provide them with hands-on research opportunities. IBN’s Youth Research Program (YRP) offers students a platform to explore their interest in science. Since 2003, the YRP has reached out to more than 101,388 students and teachers from 290 schools, while over 2,500 students and teachers have completed research attachments at IBN for a minimum period of four weeks.

Having served on the advisory boards of several start up companies, how do you think this trend is in Asia; what would be your core advice and suggestions to a startup journey?

 My advice is to be realistic about what you want to do. Always be open to learn from others and grow. In order to succeed, it is very important to find the right business partner and have peseverance to overcome the many hurdles in the long path of technology commercialization, especially in the biomedical fields.

Finally, what would be your message to the young minds who are skeptical about choosing a scientific career in research?

Science is not just a career. Rather, it is about the impact you can make through research. For example, a new invention or a technological breakthrough may have the potential to benefit millions of people. Young people should think big and do things that excite them. Research requires a lot of hard work to reach a level of sophistication that can make a real impact, so it is important that young people understand the larger purpose of their work. Only then will they devote their lives to such a pursuit to make a difference.