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The sweat detective: This scientist sniffs out clues to improve your health
Dr Yang Le ASTAR scholar
A*STAR scholar Dr Yang Le has built a thriving career as a scientist under the agency’s guidance. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DR YANG LE

A*STAR scholar is working on breakthrough research in biomedical sensors and other fast-emerging fields

Imagine a sensor no bigger than the size of a plaster that you can stick on your skin or wear like a watch to monitor your sweat for abnormalities. Dr Yang Le, a principal scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), is developing such an innovation.

“Most of the wearables that we have now focus on physical parameters, like how many steps you walked or your heart rate. If you want to know anything about your chemical composition, you have to do an invasive blood test, even if it is just a finger prick. We see our sensor as an alternative that can complement wearables on the market,” she says. 

Such a sweat sensor offers the potential for early disease detection and abnormal warnings. According to Dr Yang, head of the new Sensors and Flexible Electronics Department in the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) under A*STAR, it also opens doors for personalised healthcare.

Her WISH (Wearable Integrated Sweat-Sensor for Health) prototype is still undergoing engineering fine-tuning as well as human on-body trials, so a commercially viable product is likely a couple of years away. Still, it is only one of the promising projects being advanced by the eight-strong PROFESS group she leads.

Named after its focus on research that could lead to Printed, Organic, Flexible Electronics and Sensors, PROFESS has already made breakthroughs that could result in lower-cost and more energy-efficient lighting and electronics such as handphones. 

“We are focusing on organic and polymeric materials to develop optoelectronics – electronics that source, detect and control light, such as solar cells and LEDs – and biomedical sensors to help advance the world’s two major issues: energy and healthcare,” shares the 35-year-old.

Optoelectronics is a fast-emerging technology field that has a wide range of applications in telecommunications, medicine and consumer electronics.

“By improving the electronics’ energy efficiency, we can do our part for sustainability. With the sensors, we can empower people to gain easier access to previously unavailable health information,” she adds.

A scholarship to groom scientists

She credits A*STAR’s support for helping her to become the scientist that she is today. Since joining the agency in 2018, she has won honours such as the L’Oreal-Unesco for Women in Science Singapore award and is listed in the 2023 MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 Asia Pacific. 

Her interest in becoming a researcher grew from simple experiments and science projects in school as well as a research attachment programme in junior college. It was applying for and getting the A*STAR National Science Scholarship (BS-PhD) that enabled her to turn her passion into a thriving career as a scientist. 

The scholarship covered her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Imperial College London and a PhD in physics from the University of Cambridge. She made crucial connections that continue to benefit her work. “In research, you need mentors, supervisors and advisors, not just for their technical expertise but to guide you in your career,” says Dr Yang.

“The scholarship experience has instilled in me a sense of responsibility to use my knowledge to make a tangible, positive impact.””

Dr Yang Le, recipient of the A*STAR National Science Scholarship (BS-PhD)

A*STAR also assigned one of its senior principal scientists as her local mentor during her PhD studies, to keep her abreast of research developments and trends in Singapore, among other guidance and help. “He is still my mentor to this day, albeit informally. I’ve learnt a lot from him, including how to lead a research group,” she says.

The agency goes further by sponsoring scholars to attend international conferences, which paved the way for her to meet and collaborate with others globally as well as raise her profile. “When you’re starting out as a scientist, this kind of connectedness is critical to launching your early career,” she says. 

“If you present good work that impresses the audience, that sets the groundwork for future collaborations, which can lead to an unlimited number of unforeseen opportunities. It can also help you if they end up reviewing your research papers or grant proposals later.”

That is why she tells her juniors in the scholarship programme to treasure the opportunity that A*STAR provides by going to conferences.

Forging a close community

Dr Yang adds that the scholarship provides more than career advantages. A*STAR organises networking sessions for its scholars, including get-togethers for those who are in the same area overseas, so they can befriend and support one another.

“Doing a PhD can be gruelling, so you need a good social network where you can vent to, hang out with and share joy. Many of my closest and dearest friends are from the A*STAR community. I even ended up marrying a fellow scholar,” she says with a laugh.

Those who face difficulties can contact A*STAR for help. “Although I never had to do it, I think having this safety net available is invaluable as problems like mental stress can kick in suddenly and unexpectedly,” says Dr Yang. 

Even though her bond ended in 2023, A*STAR’s management still checks in with her to see how she is doing.

Looking back, Dr Yang says the scholarship played a pivotal role in shaping her, and not only because of its financial support. It enabled a transformative educational experience and also clarified and solidified her goal of contributing meaningfully to the world through her scientific work. 

“The mentorship and collaborative environment encouraged me to aim higher, and pursue and solve challenges with confidence,” she shares. 

“The scholarship experience has instilled in me a sense of responsibility to use my knowledge to make a tangible, positive impact. That’s what I hope to achieve in my life.”

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