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The National Research Foundation Singapore will support the research ambition of four A*STAR researchers through two key programmes—the NRF Fellowship and the NRF investigatorship.

© A*STAR Research

Empowering creativity and courage: NRF’s class of 2022

16 Aug 2022

The National Research Foundation Singapore will support the research ambition of four A*STAR researchers through two key programmes—the NRF Fellowship and the NRF Investigatorship.

In the early years of Singapore’s independence, science and technology played a strictly functional role—to create jobs and compensate for the nation’s limited resources. Today, while still driven functionally, the little red dot has made a name for itself as a bustling science and technology hub and consistently finds itself among top contenders on global competitiveness, research and innovation rankings.

To boost the continued expansion of Singapore’s research ecosystem, the National Research Foundation Singapore (NRF) launched the NRF Fellowship in 2008 and the NRF Investigatorship in 2015 to recognise the most promising early-career and mid-career researchers respectively.

The NRF Investigatorship supports established and active mid-career researchers in their pursuit of ground-breaking, high-risk research. Meanwhile, the NRF Fellowship, open to all areas of science and technology as well as all nationalities, offers opportunities for early-career scientists to carry out independent research in Singapore for five years. Fellows will also be offered tenure-track faculty positions at Singapore-based partner research institutions.

This year, four outstanding A*STAR researchers are among the select group of individuals receiving these highly prestigious accolades. Yu Fu and Xian Jun Loh were awarded the NRF Investigatorship to pursue metabolism and materials science research respectively, and Basura Fernando and Yanwei Lum received the NRF Fellowship for their work in artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainable electrochemistry.

Making sense of metabolic connections for positive change

Like betting big on an underdog in a spirited horse race—with high-risk research comes the potential for high rewards for society. However, extremely unlike horse racing, the risk of the NRF Investigatorship is greatly mitigated by funding researchers with a proven track record of research achievements and success.

By supporting brave and talented scientists as they seek to understand unanswered questions, the NRF Investigatorship drives progress across important fields that bring about societal benefits. For example, the work of 2022 awardee, Yu Fu, is designed to alleviate the burden metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes put on Singapore’s economy and society.

Currently the head of the brain plasticity group at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), Fu studies the influence of external environmental cues on the appetite of people who are obese. Using lab mice, his team establishes new behavioural paradigms to understand how high-sugar and high-fat food triggers eating behaviour outside of physiological needs.

Recently, the team has identified a new neural population that plays a significant role in the feeding behaviour of mice. Essentially, if a specific environmental context is paired with palatable food in hungry mice, the same environmental cue will be able to trigger food consumption even when the mice are not hungry—a phenomenon that could potentially be applied to human beings as well.

“We uncovered a key neural mechanism that underlies context-driven food over-consumption, where blocking a specific neural circuit could completely abolish such maladaptive eating,” explained Fu. “Our findings also guide us in a new direction of studying how different hypothalamic orexigenic neurons integrate different types of information for modulating or guiding eating behaviour.”

Looking ahead, on top of identifying key neural circuit changes responsible for maladaptive eating behaviour, Fu’s team will also be able to understand which population is prone to developing over-consumption and subsequent metabolic diseases.

“With new developments in non-invasive brain stimulation methods, I hope we can target specific brain regions or neural connections for curbing excessive appetite for curing obesity without complicated surgeries or drugs,” shared Fu. “Our study of gut-brain communication could also lead to new molecular targets for developing drugs that modulate metabolism.”

Materials man, leader and mentor

With over two decades of experience in biomaterials, Xian Jun Loh has worked his way up through A*STAR’s ranks to become the Executive Director at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE). Since contributing to a variety of fields from sustainable mask alternatives to drug delivery systems, Loh’s accomplishments—including being listed as one of the world’s most highly cited researchers—have made him a prime awardee of the NRF Investigatorship.

Loh and his team have recently embarked on research into hydrogels that respond to changes in temperature, known as thermogels. Much like his previous work with biomaterials, thermogels are well established in the fields of drug and protein delivery due to their temperature- controlled reversible sol-gel phase transitions, high biocompatibility and tunable biodegradability.

Currently, the team is studying the fundamental polymeric factors that influence thermogel properties—paving the way for further applications of thermogelling systems.

“We speculate that there is still much-untapped potential of thermogels in the biomedical field,” shared Loh. “These can be potentially achieved by designing thermogel copolymers with bioactive moieties and exploring more advanced branched architectures.”

Throughout his career, Loh has faced a variety of challenges from experimental failures to managing a new direction of the institute—each of which strengthened his resolve and capabilities as a researcher, leader and mentor. When working with junior scientists, he keeps these lessons in mind and engages with them as much as possible to help them understand the paths and opportunities available to them in Singapore’s scientific ecosystem.

“I try to pass on all the information they require,” said Loh. “Younger scientists begin like sponges, absorbing information extremely quickly. If we surround them with beneficial information, they can learn the right lessons quickly.”

With the support of the investigatorship, Loh hopes to maximise the resources available to him to deliver value to Singapore’s research landscape and eventually benefit individuals with robust solutions. “The NRF Investigatorship is a fantastic opportunity for scientists who are interested in fundamental research to carry out high-risk projects that achieve breakthroughs,” said Loh.

Creating the ‘other me’

Reminiscent of futuristic scenarios in the popular TV series Black Mirror, Basura Fernando’s ‘other me’ project aims to develop AI models based on the human mind and designed to aid individuals with daily tasks—sans dystopian consequences. By understanding how human beings create and map new knowledge, Fernando, hopes to create a functional copy of the human mind capable of offering advice and support when required. This remarkable work¬—and ambition—of his earned him the NRF Fellowship.

“The goal is to create a virtual assistant that resides in your glasses that can see what you do and understand what needs to happen next,” explained Fernando, a Research Scientist at A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC). “It can then guide you to accomplish a task, like assembling an aircraft engine, by telling you the steps to take and intervening when something is not done right.”

To improve upon current AI capabilities, Fernando and his team ensure the next generation of deep AI models are capable of performing both neural and symbolic manipulations in an integrated manner. By leveraging the functional mapping and explainability benefits of neural and symbolic approaches respectively, the team hopes to develop models that can understand human behaviour by processing videos.

“The NRF Fellowship is a huge boost to my research agenda,” said Fernando. “It provides visibility of my academic accomplishments to a broader community—allowing me to attract top talent and build a formidable team. It is also a fantastic opportunity to focus on basic research uninterrupted for the next five years with great support from NRF and A*STAR.”

Going far and going together

On top of encouraging the growth of individual researchers, the NRF Fellowship spurs the growth of Singapore’s research ecosystem—one with multiple interconnected parts allowing researchers across entities to work together.

NRF Fellow, Yanwei Lum, like many other researchers, holds more than one complementary role within this ecosystem as a scientist at IMRE and assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.

After discovering a passion for electrochemistry during his scholarship research attachment at A*STAR, Lum was inspired to study the electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide into value-added chemicals.

Keenly aware of the threat carbon dioxide emissions pose to the future of the planet, Lum’s team at IMRE aims to convert carbon dioxide into formic acid. As an attractive choice, formic acid is non-toxic, safe and a low-cost carrier of hydrogen and can potentially be used as a green fuel to power cars, buses and transportation systems.

“We have been designing better gas diffusion media to facilitate the transportation of carbon dioxide to the catalyst system that performs the conversion reaction,” explained Lum. “We are also developing new catalyst materials that will allow us to construct highly efficient reactor systems capable of transforming carbon dioxide and water into a fuel, just like plants do with photosynthesis, but at a much quicker pace.”

In his role at NUS, Lum has been able to build on the strengths of both institutes and attract students to intern with his lab. “Synergy among research institutions is highly critical, especially since Singapore is a small country with limited resources,” said Lum. “Therefore, the directions that we embark on must be strategic and only through working together can we maximize the use of these resources. I believe that my joint appointment role at both IMRE and NUS can help by bridging gaps and enhancing communication between both sides.”

Leveraging his dual roles and the support of NRF, Lum hopes to contribute to the greater understanding of the carbon dioxide conversion process and to create a sustainable method that can be applied at scale.

“The continuous overarching theme of the lab will be to have electrochemistry as a central platform to provide effective solutions for grand challenges in sustainability,” shared Lum.

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This article was made for A*STAR Research by Wildtype Media Group