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In a bid to beat cancer at its game

To say breast cancer researcher Li Jingmei loves her job would be an understatement.

The senior research scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) Genome Institute has made it her life’s mission to cure the debilitating disease.

The 36-year-old says: “Breast cancer is still one of the top cancers. A third of all cancers diagnosed in women are breast cancers. It’s also a growing problem — the number of new cases diagnosed every year has nearly tripled, while incidences of other cancers have largely remained the same.”

Dr Li’s current research, funded by the National Research Foundation Singapore and carried out at the Genome Institute of Singapore, is to identify women at high risk of breast cancer and improve screening programmes to enhance early detection.

This is crucial as currently only two-thirds of women aged 50 to 69 in Singapore have had a mammogram. Improving this figure — and encouraging women at high risk of breast cancer to follow up with biennial screenings — is a message Dr Li hopes will be more widely heard.

Seizing opportunities
Even as a young graduant holding a Bachelor of Science in Life Sciences (Biology) from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2006, Dr Li already knew she wanted to specialise in breast cancer research.

So the recipient of the NUS Undergraduate Scholarship and Faculty of Science valedictorian applied for the A*STAR Graduate Scholarship (AGS) Overseas Graduate Scholarship to pursue her postgraduate studies in Medical Science at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

She recalls: “As a young researcher, I wasattracted by the strong collaborations already formed between Singapore and other countries at the A*Star research institutes.”

The programme structure of the scholarship doubled Dr Li’s academic network, allowing her to learn from the best minds both at home and at a partner university. “During my doctoral studies, I was assigned to four very different supervisors: a Chinese geneticist, a Swedish cancer oncologist, a Czech epidemiologist and an English mathematician. It was like an academic arranged marriage.”

Besides allowances, the scholarship provided her with overseas travel expenses for one overseas conference per year — which helped her expand her international network very early in her career.

Dr Li says: “As the saying goes, ‘Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not.’ This scholarship gave me opportunities.”

Awards and rewards
The decorated female scientist’s acumen and commitment to furthering research in her field has garnered her numerous accolades, from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Fellowship to the 2017 Young Scientist Award at the President’s Science and Technology Awards.

Her exuberant zest extends to other parts of her life as well — Dr Li takes time out to enjoy the good life whenever she can, whether it is by the pool reading a book (the avid reader finishes up to three books a week) or exploring the depths of the sea as a diver.

She says: “Diving is calming, much like meditation. And looking for breakthroughs in scientific data is like discovering marine creatures. The answer is right there — one just needs to have the right frame of mind to see it.”