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Research that helps people

A childhood love for nature and biology became a natural nudge for Dr Karen Crasta to pursue a career in science. Today, she is a cancer biologist whose work brings hope to those affiliated with the dreaded disease.

Her current work involves understanding how tumours happen, and also ways to overcome chemotherapy drug resistance.

Imparting knowledge
Dr Crasta is primarily based at the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine as a principal investigator. There, she leads a team of scientists — PhD students, undergraduate students on attachment, research assistants, and postdoctoral fellows — on research work. She says: “We are like a family. I am a mentor to them and do my best to develop their skills and knowledge in science, and equip them to do science independently. “We have a fun atmosphere in the lab where everyone enjoys doing the work as they believe in the value of it, and there is always some intellectual discussion and debate going on.” On top of research work, Dr Crasta teaches medical undergraduates and postgraduate students. She also sits on several committees, where she gets to “meet new people and come up with new ideas and strategies to shape research and education”. As part of her work, she regularly collaborates with hospital clinicians, where she has the opportunity to translate her lab work to real-life applications. Research that helps people For instance, she works closely with medical doctors on projects involving ageing studies, liver cancer and osteoarthritis.

Thirst for knowledge
Dr Crasta also holds a joint appointment at the A*Star Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB).

She says: “My joint appointment with IMCB has helped me greatly in my current research. The work environment at A*Star is collegial and provides avenues for interaction not only with world-class scientists at IMCB, but other institutes such as the Genome Institute of Singapore and Institute for Medical Biology at Biopolis.

“My lab research findings are further strengthened by the stateof- the-art facilities and my lab has trained bright undergraduate students and returning A*Star scholars.”

The A*Star International Fellowship (AIF) in 2009 made her current work possible, allowing her to pursue her research at the world-renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School over two years.

There, she made a discovery that linked chromosome segregation errors to DNA damage that can potentially lead to mutations and cancer, a finding that — according to the Essential Science Indicators (Thomson Reuters) — ranks as one of the top 50 papers in the cancer biology field internationally.

The AIF also made it possible to start her own lab upon returning to Singapore.

Prior to the fellowship, she already held a PhD in cell cycle regulation.

Helping to fight cancer
Dr Crasta advises those keen to become scientists that research is never straightforward and that one must keep trying even after failures.

She adds: “Hypotheses may turn out to be wrong but that shouldn’t stop one from pursuing the problem. From another perspective, it could lead to something novel and interesting.”

Other challenges that she faces include being able to meet the quality and quantity of work needed for journal publication, as well as competition for research funding.

However, the knowledge that her work will be one day be translated to therapies in clinics for patients to improve their quality of life pushes her on. By understanding how cells form tumours and escape killing by chemotherapy, her research can potentially lead to solutions for circumventing the cancer cells’ routes of escape from cell death after chemotherapy treatment.

Dr Crasta’s passion for solving scientific problems and sharing her knowledge also motivates her. After all, it was these traits that propelled her to seeking the scholarship and becoming a scientist.

She says: “I love that it gives me the freedom to pursue questions in science that I’m specifically interested and excited about, and the means to assemble a team whose members have the same vision.

“I also love that it gives me opportunities to contribute to education, which I feel is my small way of having an impact and hopefully making a difference in the lives of the young students I encounter. And the fact that I get to interact with people from all sectors, clinicians, engineers, students and other scientists.”