When I was in JC, I only had a vague idea of what research scientists did, and, like most of my classmates in the science stream, was interested in being a medical doctor. However, I knew that understanding nature and how the world (particularly the brain) worked was something I would be interested in exploring. Hence, I did a two-month research attachment with A*STAR during the holidays, and also took up a longer internship after I graduated. These experiences exposed me to the real world of research, where boundaries of knowledge are constantly being pushed, and where I could express my creativity in the work I produced. I also loved the overall environment -- being able to work independently, flexibly, and according to my own planning (this of course depends on who you work for, but you usually get to pick that too)!
In the initial years of my research career, I studied mainly cultured cells/neurons in vitro, focusing on topics such as neurodegeneration and cellular memory formation. While enlightening, it did not satisfy my desire to understand how the brain controls human and animal behaviour. Thus, for my PhD at Harvard University, I decided to study a living, breathing organism that would still provide the thrill of rapid discovery and creative experimentation. This organism was the larval zebrafish, which has similar genes and physiology to humans, but a more optically accessible brain. As you can generate these larvae quickly and in large numbers, you can get results much faster than with mammalian models. I focused on examining the neuromodulatory circuits that control fundamental drives such as feeding and defensive behaviour, and identified the functions and interactions of neural circuits underlying appetite, pain, and social behavior. Back in Singapore, I am continuing to use the larval zebrafish model to understand gut-brain mechanisms underlying appetite and food decisions, and how they are dysregulated in obesity and metabolic diseases. To me, anything fundamentally important in biology would be conserved in the simplest of organisms, and thus understanding how these processes work in simple organisms will have profound implications for us all.
I was a soprano in the ACJC choir, which was also my first formal choral experience. It was incredibly fun and the training was top-notch. Auditioning for the Cornell University Chorus in college was thus an easy choice for me. There, I discovered my hidden talent as an alto, and choir became an integral part of my college experience (together with research, of course). I met all my best friends from college through choir, including my husband, who was a friend of my choir mates.
During my PhD, I took up a new hobby that was inspired by my summer break travels -- which was learning Italian. After more than 5 years, I became quite fluent! I also fostered cats and kittens for the MSPCA in Boston. Now back in Singapore, I have adopted 2 kittens of my own, and they are currently occupying a lot of my time. The nice thing about research life is that your schedule is usually much more flexible than in other jobs, so there is plenty of time to pursue your own hobbies outside of work.
SMC united like-minded students interested in all aspects of science and medicine. In addition to being really friendly and fun, it stimulated my confidence, creativity, leadership, and teaching skills through the activities and events we organized. In ACJC, I also had very inspiring teachers who motivated me to continue pursuing a scientific career and also to develop both intellectually and emotionally.
My practical advice would be to expose yourself to real-world research. This will help you figure out if it suits you. In fact, try to volunteer not just in one lab, but in multiple different laboratories working on multiple research topics. This is because your experience in each lab will depend a lot on the professor that you work with, members of the team, as well as the institution. Most importantly, there is no rush to make this decision, and even if you decide to pursue a PhD, you don’t necessarily have to stick to an academic job. Many of the scholars in my A*STAR cohort are not doing research per se, but still passionately contributing to Singapore’s biomedical and economic clusters.
The awesome thing about a research career is that there is no single “one-size-fits-all”, instead it accommodates a great diversity of personalities, talents, and career prospects (not everyone has to become a professor)! At the same time, there are unique skills and characteristics that can help you thrive in a research career, such as resilience, creativity, organization, and rigour. If you already possess, or believe you can develop these traits, then you are a step in the right direction.
It is also important to understand what makes you tick. Research is not all sunshine and roses, and you cannot simply rely on “passion” to see you through. Your success often depends heavily on luck, and there is plenty of failure, rejection, tedium, criticism, and competition. Your job is neither highly stable nor financially-rewarding, and many will question its immediate value to society. Thus, you will need to find the silver linings in all these clouds. Personally, the small joys of research help me persevere when the going is tough. I enjoy the constant demand for creativity and the thrill of (the occasional) discovery -- building new knowledge where no one has gone before. I enjoy reading and writing -- not in a rush as you would do in a timed exam, but with careful and repeated revision. I also enjoy teaching and presenting, although paradoxically, public speaking still makes me nervous. These are all integral aspects of research life that you will come to encounter. Over time, and with practical research experience, you will figure out whether you have the right characteristics and aptitude for this job, as well as whether it truly “sparks joy” for you!