It may be decades before a scientist’s work makes its way onto the cover of a leading scientific journal, but Dr Ang Qi Yan clocked that achievement at just a little past 30 years old.
As part of her postdoctoral research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, the A*STAR (Agency for Science, Technology and Research) scholar found a new type of gut bacteria that thrives during the period when babies switch from breast milk to solid food.
The discovery, which made the cover of Cell journal last November, will help medical professionals understand how the gut microbiome evolves in early life so they can develop nutritional solutions – such as probiotics and dietary guidelines – to reduce the risk of diarrhoea in babies and improve their immune systems.
“Although I don’t have children yet, I hope that by advancing our understanding of microbiome development in early life, I will be able to benefit my own kids and society more widely,” says the 32-year-old senior research fellow at A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore.
The Cell journal findings are the culmination of Dr Ang’s 12 years of research training. As the daughter of a nurse, she developed an interest in biology at an early age and even won science awards in school.
By age 17, the Hwa Chong Institution student was helping Singapore develop a dengue vaccine at A*STAR’s Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, by tracking immune responses to dengue virus proteins.
When the time came to apply to university, her heart was set on A*STAR’s National Science Scholarship (BS-PhD). “I took up the scholarship with the goal of pursuing scientific research that would contribute to the advancement of human health,” says Dr Ang. “It also offers support up to PhD level, which was unique among the scholarship offerings.”
Dr Ang enrolled at the University of Cambridge in Britain to study biomedical sciences for her bachelor programme and pursued her PhD at the University of California, San Francisco, America.
Pursuing her passion
As A*STAR scholars commit to a career in science research from a young age, the scholarship is designed to provide them the flexibility and opportunity to discover their niche as they traverse the road to a doctorate and beyond.
One example is a year-long research attachment at any of A*STAR’s research institutes that scholars serve before embarking on graduate studies. This is deductible from the six-year bond.
Dr Ang leveraged the opportunity to try out clinical research in a new area. At A*STAR’s Clinical Nutrition Research Centre, she co-led a study that resulted in a new way to measure the activity of brown fat cells – fat that burns calories by generating heat – by using an infrared camera and a novel image processing algorithm. This work could be useful for developing new treatments to address obesity and related disorders.
Armed with a fresh interest in metabolism, she enrolled in the University of California, San Francisco. There, she came across renowned microbiologist Peter Turnbaugh’s work, which found that transplanting gut microbiomes could change whether mice were predisposed to be fat or thin.
“That was the first time I got excited about the microbiome,” laughs Dr Ang, who became the first PhD student to join Prof Turnbaugh’s lab.
“It completely changed my perspective on microorganisms that live in and on our bodies. The fact that our microbiomes are highly modifiable by our diet and lifestyle presents exciting opportunities for interventions at improving human health.”
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Innovating for Singapore
Innovative solutions such as these are precisely what Singapore is looking to uncover as the nation positions itself as a global research hub for science.
As demand for PhD-level science talent soars, the A*STAR scholarship nurtures the next generation of world-class researchers, to develop innovations that further Singapore’s economic growth while improving lives at home and beyond.
Shortly before her postdoctoral work on the infant gut microbiome made the journal’s cover, Dr Ang’s PhD thesis on how a ketogenic diet affects gut microbiome was also published in Cell.
These, and other notable accomplishments, landed her the A*STAR Young Achiever Award, with $500,000 in funding for microbiome research.
Today, she is busy parsing a large skin microbiome dataset to identify new approaches in the treatment of skin disorders connected to eczema and hair loss.
“The combination of intellectual challenge and real-world impact is the most rewarding aspect of my job,” she says.
“I am excited to help further our understanding of the microbiome. By learning more about it, I hope to find new ways to keep us healthy and prevent disease.”