When you feel hungry, it is not your stomach, but your brain at work.
Dr Sarah Luo, an Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) scholar, and her colleagues identified the neural circuit in the brain that regulates eating and metabolism. This major discovery in 2018 increased scientists’ understanding of why changes in appetite happen and could lead to new treatments for eating disorders.
At the time, Dr Luo was pursuing postdoctoral studies at the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC) and received the Young Individual Research Grant from the National Medical Research Council for her contributions.
Today, the 35-year-old principal investigator in neurometabolism is building on that research with her own lab at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), looking at how the brain uses nutrient information from organs to control food intake. A*STAR scholars benefit from the organisation’s 20 research entities, such as IMCB and SBIC, to embark on cross-disciplinary research.
Dr Luo’s research has since won her the Young Scientist Award 2021 and the prestigious National Research Foundation Fellowship.
For Dr Luo, her current work is the fruit of a budding interest in biology that began in junior college.
“I always wondered how scientists made the discoveries that changed lives,” she says.
The A*STAR scholarship offered her the option to pursue her studies up to the doctorate level, which she saw as critical to realising her desired science career.
Since 2001, A*STAR has nurtured over 1,700 PhD and postdoctoral talents, equipping them through a top-class education, fellowships and collaborations with universities around the world.
As a biology undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, Dr Luo’s interest in neurology was piqued after reading books by British neurologist Oliver Sacks.
“It is fascinating how the brain is responsible not only for our consciousness and thoughts, but also our bodies’ basic functioning,” she says. This led to a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco.
Thanks to A*STAR collaborations, including a summer programme at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (now known as RIKEN Center for Brain Science) in Japan in 2008, Dr Luo also connected with scientists around the world.
“Because of the scholarship, I built up a strong network and received valuable mentorship, which is key to developing partnerships and scientific excellence,” she says.
FIGHTING THE FAT
Dr Luo’s state-of- the-art research lab is one of many in A*STAR staffed by scientists, researchers and engineers from 60 countries, all working to find solutions to global issues and make the Republic a world-class scientific hub.
Currently, her team is hoping to identify key nodes in the brain which, when targeted, will curb excessive food consumption. This could help cure obesity.
Obesity is a major cause of death globally and leads to further health problems including diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Last year, Singapore’s obesity rate rose to its highest in a decade.
Although her research has been slowed by the pandemic due to workplace restrictions, Dr Luo is not giving up, motivating herself with the greater purpose of her work.
“Since our day-to-day work involves running experiments in the lab, the circuit breaker and workplace restrictions severely impacted our productivity,” she says. “I learnt resilience and flexibility. We had to strike the right balance, and make tough decisions.
“If the discoveries we make in the lab can one day lay the foundation for a drug or therapy to help people suffering from disease, I would be satisfied with my career.”
Visit a-star.edu.sg/scholarships/overview for more information.