Fireside chat with researchers and students

Researchers and students are our most priced assets. What sparked their interest in science and what keeps them passionate? I find out their inner stories by interviewing them....

Had so much fun talking with Eugenia from ViREMiCs and Johnathon from Nanostring about the recent advancements in omics technology and bioinformatics, and also how how we think that it may impact the way we do infectious diseases research! To hear the podcast, please feel free to visit:

Interview with Meisam, a PhD student under Ooi Yaw Shin
Interview with Meisam, a PhD student under Ooi Yaw Shin

When you talk to Meisam Yousefi, you know that he is someone truly passionate about science. I have enjoyed endless scientific discussions with him, and am glad to contribute part of his PhD project looking at the role of TMEM41B and VMP1 in dengue virus infection. Had a chance to chat with him about what motivated him to do a PhD and his future plans.

1. What made you decide to do a PhD here?

Meisam: I did quite a lot of bioinformatics during my Masters, but am interested to find out how they can be potentially applied to other aspects of science, particularly in infectious diseases. I also enjoyed science and hope to be exposed to other aspects of science beyond bioinformatics, which is why I joined the Duke-NUS Medical School for my PhD.

2. What do you think was the most valuable lesson you have learnt during your PhD?

Meisam: I realised that I like science, and I like it even more when I am doing science that people care about! During my Masters, I was mostly doing computational modelling and working on naive human pluripotent cells. It was fun, but I couldn’t really see how this knowledge can be applied to the real world, which is why I initially thought that bioinformatics alone may be inadequate to make a difference to the real world. However, during my PhD here, I have learnt a lot from my mentor, Ooi Yaw Shin, as well as many others in the department, on how science can contribute in the understanding of infectious diseases. My passion for computational biology re-ignited over my PhD years, and I hope that one day I will be able to use some of my skill sets to make a real difference in the understanding of infectious diseases.

3. Now that you have been exposed to both wet lab and dry lab aspects of science. Which one do you like better?

Meisam: I think I like the dry lab aspect of science better. During my PhD, I figured out why this was so, and this could be related to personality. I realised that I like to see things in a broader picture, which is why data science is very appealing to me, as I can use big data to see things in multiple angles.

4. What do you hope to do in the near future?

Meisam: To be honest, I haven’t thought much about it so my choices are likely to change with time. Right now, I think being able to work at the interface between bioinformatics and infectious diseases would be most ideal. Some examples may include molecular diagnostics which are CRISPR-based, or designing of probes for biomarkers etc.

I appreciate the frank conversations we had over coffee. Talking to him reminds me of my past, where I first started out with wet lab research and transited to more dry lab research as I was also interested in looking at broader aspects of things. His first-author is currently in revision, and sincerely hope he gets through the peer review process, to work on more exciting projects. Looking forward to collaborate with him more and hear more of his stories!

Milly Choy fireside chat about her set up in CGHD
Milly Choy fireside chat about her set up in CGHD

Milly Choy has been a great friend of mine, working together for about 8 years. I admire her passion in basic science and vector biology research, and it is just amazing that she can manage her family of 5 and research so elegantly. She is involved setting up the new Satellite Center for Global Health Discovery (CGHD) in Duke-NUS Medical School, with the mission to develop therapeutics against flaviviruses. I had the opportunity to interview her on the joys and challenges in setting up the new lab.

1. Can you briefly describe your role in the CGHD?

Milly: I am the lead principal scientist, and in charge of managing the administrative, logistics and research projects over at CGHD.

2. What are the current research projects that excites you the most?

Milly: I am most excited about translating our existing technologies developed in Duke-NUS Medical School to test the lead drug candidates developed by the J&J team. I am particularly interested to discover the underlying molecular mechanisms of how these lead drug candidates can exert their antiviral effects.

3. What are your short term and long term goals for your team?

Milly: The long term goal would be to be able to eventually identify a lead drug candidate that is potent against flaviviruses and with minimal side effects. However, I am aware that this will require a strong collaborative effort, which is why one of my top priorities in the short-term will be to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the team members at CGHD, and to create an environment conducive for intellectual scientific discussions and teamwork. Also, I hope to be able to collaborate more with other institutes within Singapore and the region, for example with the Environmental Health Institute, so that we will be able to work on virus strains that are most relevant to the region.

4. Do you foresee any challenges? Are there any plans to overcome them?

Milly: As I am helping to form a new team of post-docs and research assistants, every individual comes from different backgrounds and working styles. It may be initially challenging to be able to work in harmony with everyone, but I believe that if I am able to understand everyone better, we can leverage each other’s strengths to achieve our common goal, which is to find a suitable antiviral target against flaviviruses.

That sounds an immense amount of effort to build and set up a new lab! I wish Milly all the success, and looking forward to hear her exciting science in the near future!

Fireside chat with Duane Gubler
Fireside chat with Duane Gubler

Emeritus Professor Duane Gubler is the Founder of our Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) programme at Duke-NUS Medical School. He has more than 50 years of dengue research experience and I feel so honored to be able to have lunch with him at the House of Peranakan at Tiong Bahru. Over lunch, he shared with us his experience and encouraged us to step out of our comfort zones to pursue our interests and dreams. We had quite a few memorable conversation topics that I am proud to share...

1. How did you manage to move out of your comfort zone and pursue your dreams as a dengue researcher?

Duane: It was a difficult decision, but I decided that if I want to study dengue, then I must do the research in places where it matters the most. The first movement was to Kolkata, which at that time was very hard to imagine moving there, as the culture and the environment were very different. The movement was tough, but we were “forced” to learn the culture and adapt to the new environment. In fact, it made our family stronger than before, as we had to depend on each other to adapt to this new environment. The second movement was to Indonesia, which was a major culture switch as well. However, over time, my family started to appreciate these movements, and looking back, my children found that they have gained so much from these encounters, which eventually helped them build their characters and careers even up till today.

2. I have recently transited from wet lab research to a more computational biology research. What do you think are the research projects worth looking into?

Duane: I think there are still many questions still unanswered for Zika. Why did the Zika pandemic happen so quickly and disappeared so quickly? What are the genetic sequences responsible for the pandemic, and what are the underlying mechanisms involved? Also, why does it affect more prominently in some parts of the world compared to others? Do the mutations or even genetic recombinations happen within the mosquito vector? I believe there are still many mysteries related to the virus sequences that are worth exploring into.

3. How do you build and develop a personal or company branding?

Duane: It takes time. All you need to do is to do your job well, be consistent and people will start to notice you. I believe that EID has built quite a good reputation over these years, attracting lots of PhD students. Thus, it will be natural that infectious diseases-related start-ups in Singapore will also tap into the expertise of EID for their research to be sustainable.

We had such a fun time, with good food and good company. I wish Duane good health and certainly hope to catch up with him again soon!

Fireside chat with Vi from Sophie Yacoub lab at OUCRU
Fireside chat with Vi from Sophie Yacoub lab at OUCRU

It is amazing how scientific conferences can bring like-minded researchers together. I am happy to be able to chat with Vi Tran Thuy as she traveled from Vietnam to Singapore for the 5th Asia dengue summit. Vi is a research assistant from Sophie’s lab in OUCRU. She has a wealth of experience in virus sequencing, phylogenetics and bioinformatics. It is a pleasure to chat with her as we share a lot of similar interests in the realm of bioinformatics. I took the opportunity to understand more about what excites her, and her future plans in her scientific career.

1. What experiences made you interested in research?

Vi: My experience in a molecular diagnostic lab examining different HIV genetic sequences was interesting and I had a lot of fun tweaking the different bioinformatics workflows to deep dive into the genetic variations within a virus population. Thereafter, I applied my skills that I have learnt into dengue virus research to understand more about how dengue viruses can evolve in the different niches.

2. Which part of your current research excites you the most?

Vi: I am particularly interested to look into how differences in AMPK activity can affect dengue virus infection and host responses. I understand that this will be difficult to solve, but I strongly believe we can solve this puzzle in parts.

3. What made you want to do a PhD?

Vi: I think it is cool to be able to have your own independent thinking and be able to help lead and contribute to a research project that I am passionate about.

4. What do you hope to do after you get a PhD?

Vi: I want to inspire and motivate others to do research. I had a teacher who was incredibly passionate about teaching and that spirit and energy has kept me inspired even up till now! I hope to be able to influence others with my experiences and make a difference to other people like what my teacher has done for me.

Her passion and enthusiasm reminds me on how important my role is in influencing others. I hope that we will be able to collaborate on more projects in the near future, and I look forward to working with her to solve the mysteries related to dengue.

Fireside chat with Ayesa at Viremics
Fireside chat with Ayesa at Viremics

I have known Ayesa for ~7 years since her start of her PhD with Prof Ooi Eng Eong. She was seated beside me during her PhD years and I have witnessed how she has matured scientifically over these years. Currently, she is a post-doc at ViREMiCs, and is involved in various aspects of virus sequencing and omics data analysis. Despite our differences in viewpoints on multiple topics, we generally have a good consensus on bioinformatics. She is one sincere friend who appreciates the value of bioinformatics and has given me support and the motivation to pursue my career in computational biology. I took the opportunity to interview Ayesa and find out about her PhD experience, and how she managed to transit into her current role in ViREMiCs.

1. What motivated you to do a PhD? Did your PhD fulfill what you intended to do?

Ayesa: My father was the greatest inspiration, as he led by example and had a PhD in social sciences. In addition, I was interested in science, particularly molecular biology when I was studying my undergraduate in Pharmacy. After my research experience as a research assistant in Duke-NUS, I decided that my next step for me to advance my passion in research was to take a PhD. However, when I was doing my PhD, I sometimes doubted whether this was the right path to take, as I thought my PhD was tough and overwhelming. I was glad I overcame all of these. At the end of my PhD, I felt it was a rewarding experience as I have learn a lot, beyond what any textbook can possibly teach.

2. What do you think are the most valuable lessons you learnt from your PhD? Has that helped you to transit into your current role?

Ayesa: Resilience and perseverance! Science is full of failed experiments and uncertainties. You kind of have to pick yourself up from the failures and move on. In addition, my research training has helped me tremendously in adapting to my new job role. Thus, PhD has trained me in both soft and hard skills which has helped in my transition to this current role.

3. Your current role involves a lot of bioinformatics which you did not learn during your PhD. What are the resources and attitudes do you think are most important to learn bioinformatics?

Ayesa: I enjoy working on new things, so learning new skills (including bioinformatics) has not been an issue for me. Besides learning these skills myself, I think the advice given from my PhD mentor, Prof Ooi Eng Eong is particularly useful: "If you want to learn something, always learn from the best person." Indeed, I am grateful that I can learn from experts in various fields (points at me, smiling), who are willing to teach and share with me the skills that I need for my current job.

4. How different is the life of a postdoc compared to student?

Ayesa: Very different! One of the main difference is that you are responsible for your own development and future career. You have to be disciplined and learn the skills required for the required job scope. This is unlike when you are a student where there is a clear objective of what to work on in your research.

5. How do you cope with the immense stress and pressure you faced in the workplace?

Ayesa: People tend to underestimate the importance of having a hobby. For me, walking my dog and painting has been my avenues and outlets for relieving my stress. Also, hanging out with my sincere friends and family support has helped me greatly in coping with the stress I faced at work.

Shared joy is double joy; Shared sorrow is half a sorrow. I am grateful to have met Ayesa whom I can share my happiness and sadness I faced in my scientific career. I wish her all the best in her career and hope to see her succeed!

Yuriko, student, intern, interview, NUS college
Yuriko, student, intern, interview, NUS college

I had the privilege to interview Yuriko, who has worked as an intern with us for 10 weeks. She graduated from SJI under the IB program, and is waiting to enter NUS college to pursue her interest in science. She’s always full of energy and genuinely interested in biology. I was hence particularly interested in understanding who and what motivated her passion in science. She shares her thoughts with respect to this topic…

1. What made you so interested in science?

Yuriko: I want to make an impact on healthcare because I believe that it is fundamental in improving mankind. As the saying goes: “Health is wealth.” I have seen people who died from infectious diseases because of our lack of medical and scientific knowledge. I hence hope to be able to make a difference in healthcare in the future to help save lives.

2. Both doctors and scientists can transform healthcare. What made you prefer science than medicine?

Yuriko: I like to help people, but also treasure the work-life balance so I can spend more time with my loved ones.

3. Are there any people in your life that has impacted your passion for science?

Yuriko: Yes, I had a biology teacher during my secondary school years who was clear in communicating the science, and that formed the foundation of my scientific knowledge even up till today.

4. If you had unlimited money, what would you spend on?

Yuriko: A time machine! While I understand such a technology may be used for good or bad deeds, I hope to be able to use this time machine to reverse some of my wrong decisions I made in the past. Another important thing is Education to everyone! I believe education is key to breaking the poverty cycle and strongly believe that everyone should have equal rights to have access to education to make a difference in society.

5. What are you most excited to learn in NUS college?

Yuriko: I am not quite sure at this moment. I think I want to do life science as a major, but undecided whether I should choose psychology, literature or data science as my other major/minor. In either case, I hope what I have learnt will have some relevance to health sciences and hope that one day I will be able to make my small contribution to health sciences.

From my conversations with Yuriko, I realised how important it is to mentor and encourage the interns and students so that they can continue to strive and make a difference to our society. Sincere thanks to Yuriko for sharing her thoughts and I wish you all the best in your future endeavours!