Groundbreaking science that helps the community at large has been at the forefront of A*STAR’s research. And this year’s winners of the President’s Science and Technology Awards (PSTA) and Young Scientist Award (YSA) are the embodiment of this goal.
With their work spanning a wide range of subjects from early life research to materials science and neurometabolism, three winners from A*STAR—Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Professor Xiaodong Chen and Dr Sarah Luo—were recognised for their achievements in their respective fields.
The PSTA has been awarded annually since 2009 and represents the highest national awards bestowed upon Singapore’s scientists and engineers whose research has made its way to improve our lives through shaping policies and changing industry-wide standards and practices. This year’s A*STAR researchers received one President’s Science and Technology Medal (PSTM) and one President’s Science Award (PSA).
Awarded at the same time, the Young Scientist Award (YSA) is given to young, innovative scientists and engineers under 35 who have shown potential for conducting world-class research.
Giving back to the community with science
Healthy childhood development, as well as the thriving progression through life, begins with effective maternal and infant healthcare. In fact, even subtle influences on embryonic, fetal or infant development can have life-long influences on both physical and mental health.
This crucial juncture in maternal health and early childhood development has been the focus of much of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman’s research career. Starting as a paediatric endocrinologist in New Zealand, Gluckman has become an instrumental figure in growing Singapore’s early life research landscape. He also holds a major role internationally as president of the International Science Council, the global organisation representing natural and social sciences.
In his current role as Chief Scientific Officer of the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), he is the key architect behind the ongoing project Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes (GUSTO)—Singapore’s ambitious cohort study delving deep into the influence of maternal health in early childhood development. GUSTO is notable for its ethnically diverse cohort and has been continuously running for over 13 years, providing valuable data on Singaporean children’s health and development from infancy to adolescence. The 2021 President’s Science and Technology Medal (PSTM) was bestowed upon him for his widespread contribution to advanced health and biomedical science research in Singapore.
Commemorating this achievement, Gluckman reflects on the mentorship he received during his final year of medical school at the University of Otago. This moment became the turning point in his career as a paediatrician and as a research scientist. “I developed a strong mentor-mentee relationship with the professor of paediatrics, the late Professor Sir Bob Elliott. I found him both inspirational as a mentor and as a physician. At the same time, he was also a very inquisitive and passionate scientist,” says Gluckman.
As someone of his stature, it comes as no surprise that young researchers approach him for career advice. “My advice to them is simple: ‘Choose the person, not the project.’” He believes it is important to not only find a mentor who nurtures and guides young scientists, but one who also inspires the next generation to take risks and be bold in their approach to research.
He also emphasises that science needs to resonate with the community. His role in GUSTO and experience as a scientific advisor to both New Zealand and Singaporean governments has further cemented Gluckman’s belief that science can be used as a tool to build and strengthen both community policy and diplomatic ties between nations—in other words, as a ‘universal language’ for diplomacy to bring about benefits to the community.
Planting the seeds for a new type of robot
For most of us, the image of a robot is that of a clunky and rigid machine. However, there is an exciting field that brings together material science, mechanics and engineering to create robots using softer materials that can interface and interact with organic materials like human skin or plant tissue— a field known as mechanomaterials.
Mechanomaterials, the emerging field on the block, is the research focus of Professor Xiaodong Chen, a Science Director at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) at A*STAR and President’s Chair Professor in Material Science and Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Chen was awarded the 2021 President’s Science Award (PSA) for his outstanding achievements and contributions to soft bioelectronics. In one of his latest efforts, Chen and his team created the world’s first plant-based robot. Using a soft composite material to act as a detector and wireless receiver for electrical signals on a Venus flytrap, the team then used this material as a conduit to manually trigger electrical impulses to open and close the flytrap’s lobes wirelessly using a smartphone. This innovation allows the creation of small biological robots to handle dainty tasks such as gripping small and fragile materials.
According to Chen, this technology could have a multitude of uses across a wide spectrum of issues we are currently facing, such as climate change. “The technology behind these robots has the potential to enhance monitoring the health of food crops, allowing us to monitor and sustain food security in a world that is in the grips of climate change,” says Chen.
Chen’s research has also helped him in his work as an academic and mentor to students at NTU. Working collaboratively in a research organisation is something that he advises young scientists to actively seek.
“By interacting with different people with valuable expertise in various fields, we can develop and expand core competencies to create innovations that lead to viable commercial products,” he says.
He is keen to see the creativity young researchers possess in finding and developing novel solutions to pressing issues affecting our world, and hopes that this creative drive is nurtured along with a desire to find ways of executing these solutions. He remarks, “the distinction between creativity and innovation is being able to implement your ideas into an actionable solution.”
Highlighting the hunger pathway
Everyone knows the feeling of eating good food—and unfortunately, also the feeling of eating so much of it to the point of feeling uncomfortable. The brain receives such cues from the body and ultimately controls decisions to eat or not to eat. So how does it do that?
This is what principal investigator Dr Sarah Luo is researching in her lab at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB). Her work delves deeper into how the brain and peripheral metabolic organs, which include the liver and pancreas, interact with each other to determine feeding behaviour and metabolism. “This will allow us to better understand the mechanisms behind disordered eating and metabolic diseases,” says Luo.
Luo was lauded for her work with the 2021 Young Scientist Award (YSA). This follows her receipt of the National Research Foundation Singapore Fellowship (NRFF) the same year. Such an achievement is a testament to Luo’s determination and hard work.
“It is humbling and gratifying as it is an honour to receive the prestigious Young Scientist Award,” she remarks. “It highlights the importance of our work in combating prevalent health issues like obesity.” Luo hopes recognising rising talent in Singapore can show young scientists that even their smallest contributions can provide a meaningful impact on improving scientific knowledge, paving the way for future discoveries that can help the community at large.
From her time as a senior research fellow to becoming a principal investigator, Luo has never lost sight of her goal of developing a framework for treating obesity and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. This, according to her, has been the mission of her mentors that she is further building upon with her group in A*STAR.
“I hope to make more discoveries in neurometabolism by untangling and uncovering the signalling mechanisms behind our hunger and satiety responses; and to provide more inroads in discovering potential therapeutic targets for obesity and other metabolic diseases,” adds Luo.