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Perseverance is key to science success

Dr Loh Xian Jun has a penchant for defying the odds.

In 1999, he was one of only two recipients of the Merit Award in the National Science Talent Search (now known as the A*Star Talent Search), the
largest science research competition in Singapore at the time.

As a result, Dr Loh was also awarded the National Science Scholarship (BS), which covered the full expenses of his undergraduate education.

But even with the option of studying overseas like many of his peers, he decided to pursue his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

“If I had gone overseas, I would have had to take on too many things: accommodation, new environment, new acquaintances, new activities,” he says.

“If I didn’t have to go through this adaptation period, I could hit the ground running.”

And he most assuredly did. Dr Loh secured himself a place in a laboratory in his first year of study, which would eventually lead to the scientific breakthrough that would change his life forever.

Committed to excel
Despite working in a lab that had no funding for his initial ideas, he managed to invent a thermogelling polymer — a material that, paradoxically,
melts when cooled and solidifies when heated — in the final year of his undergraduate studies.

Things moved quickly after that.

In 2007, he filed a patent for the thermogel and embarked on his Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) course at NUS, under the A*Star Graduate Scholarship programme.

He was conferred his degree in just two years — a feat that he attributes to his decision to pursue his undergraduate education locally.

“I had amassed a large amount of research data by that time, sufficient to write the papers required for graduation,” he says.

During his PhD studies, A*Star sponsored his attachment to the Riken research institute in Japan, as well as his postdoctoral studies in Cambridge University.

Returning to Singapore in 2012, he was then made program manager at A*Star’s Personal Care Program, overseeing a portfolio of projects with personal and consumer care companies ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises to multi-national corporations.

Impacting lives
Today, the 38-year-old holds several appointments. He is the deputy director of graduate affairs in A*Star’s Science and Engineering Research Council, an assistant professor in NUS, the chairman of the Grants Review Taskforce in A*Star’s Science and Engineering Research Council, vice-president of the Singapore National Institute of Chemistry and department head of the Soft Materials Department in A*Star’s Institute of Materials Research and Engineering.

He may be giving back to society in a special way too — the thermogel he developed 13 years ago could soon be the key to the rehabilitation of patients who have had retinal detachment surgery.

With support from clinicians at the National University Hospital, he created a thermogel that enables the vitreous — a gel that fills the space between the lens of the eye and the retina — to regenerate, a process that was once thought biologically impossible.

Dr Loh hopes for the new gel to be used in surgical procedures within the next five years.

But he has many more years ofresearch left to go. “I have taken 20 years to reach this stage, and I am still learning and developing,” he says modestly.

“Be humble. Always ask and learn,” he concludes. “A career in science is a marathon, not a sprint.”