Dr Marissa Teo, 34, clocks in long hours daily at the as she and her research team focus their efforts on developing a vaccine for nose cancer. Their work has been variously described as “groundbreaking”, “experimental” and “cutting edge”, largely because nose cancer isn’t the type of cancer that gets a lot of attention—or Western funding. It’s been largely overlooked on the international front because it is most common in Asia—specifically South China and South-east Asia. In Singapore, it’s one of the 10 most commonly occurring cancers.
In 2010, the value of her work was recognised when she was awarded a US$20,000 (S$25,217) research grant under the L’Oreal-Unesco For Women In Science Programme. This international partnership highlights and encourages the work of women scientists around the world by giving out 20 grants every year. The prestigious initiative boasts an international panel of judges headed by Nobel Prize winner Professor Gunter Blobel and is capped by a grand awards ceremony in Paris every March. The programme was established in 1998, and Dr Teo has been the only Singaporean to be so honoured in its 13-year history.
Dr Marissa Teo in her lab at the National Cancer Centre Singapore
Dr Teo, who holds a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Georgetown University in Washington DC, used her grant to further her research in tumour immunology at the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Now back in Singapore, the petite and soft-spoken cancer researcher is working with a vengeance in the hope that her work will bear fruit and offer hope to the millions of cancer sufferers out there. “I can use this analogy to describe what it feels like to win this award,” Dr Teo said at the Her World Woman of the Year celebratory dinner on March 30. “It’s like running a very long marathon and feeling extremely tired, then lo and behold, there’s someone miraculously appearing on the side of the road with a huge mug of iced Milo!”
Dr Marissa Teo (left) and her mother, Mary Tan, have always enjoyed a very close relationship
Dr Teo attributes much of her drive and work ethic to her mother, who was trained as an engineer and has modelled the successful career woman to her daughter all her life. Here, we get the go-getting mother and daughter duo to tell us the dynamics of their relationship.
Dr Marissa Teo: “When my dog Giselle died of liver cirrhosis, it was my mum who got me through the difficult period. I was 17 then. I’d grown up with dogs as my parents used to breed boxers, but Giselle was mine. I’d got her when I was eight and I was responsible for bathing and feeding her. She was so much a part of the family she used to sit with us at the dining table, on a chair, when we had meals.
“I was terribly upset when she died but my mum helped me see things in perspective. She explained that death was a part of life and that Giselle was no longer suffering—she had gone to heaven.
“My mum has always been like a friend to me. I talk to her about everything from work to relationships. Colleagues comment about how close I am to my parents because I talk to them every day, even when I am overseas. Maybe it’s because I’m an only child and we live together.
“When I was in school, good grades weren’t as important to my parents as they were to me. They never had to push me about homework because I was so ‘kiasu’. In fact, my dad would tell me to relax and take it easy, while my mum was just ‘blur’. When I got my PSLE results, she didn’t even know there was a difference between A and A*!
“The overachieving part of me definitely comes from my mum—she’s a go-getter. I am very much like her in terms of personality, values and our priorities in life. Like, for example, giving my all in all that I do, be it work, study or play.
“She’s independent, outspoken and very direct. I’m like that, too. I don’t like to pussyfoot around issues and if I think that something is wrong, I will say so, whether you like it or not. I wasn’t always like this. The turning point was my overseas stint at Georgetown University in the US. I had to learn to speak up. Mum reminds me all the time to watch what I say but it’s become so much a part of my character.
“My mum tells me I can do anything as long as I can live with my conscience. So I always do what’s right to the best of my ability—that’s something she’s instilled in me that’s become a life philosophy.
“She’s always been my role model. She’s a bit of a feminist and she always told me to never, ever be a housewife. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but she always feels that when you give up your job, you end up depending on your husband for money—and to her, that isn’t healthy.
“One of the things I love most about her is that she’s so supportive. Right after my A levels, I went to Sydney to study veterinary science. I lasted only four months before deciding to come home because I was so homesick. My parents never said, ‘Oh you have to continue’ or ‘Since you started, you have to finish’, even though they had already paid the fees. My mum just said, ‘Come home.’ She was so supportive even though I had made the wrong decision. She’s always there for me, no matter what.”
Dr Teo as a toddler
Mary Tan, in her 50s, managing director of Clyde Associates, an engineering company: “Marissa was a very obedient child. She never got into trouble and I never had to scold her. And I never needed to push her because she was so focused on her studies.
“When it came to Marissa’s upbringing, I didn’t have much help. My mother had passed away and my mother-in-law helped for the first two years, but after that, I was basically on my own. My husband did what he could but he was very busy at work—he was a human resource manager at Caltex then.
“It helped that I owned my own company so I could arrange my schedule to suit Marissa’s school hours. So when she was in the morning session, I would work mornings and spend the afternoons with her, and vice versa when she was in the afternoon session.
“I would also take her along with me on my business trips if they were during her school holidays. I used to travel a lot for work, especially to Europe—places like France, Germany, Finland and Holland. We would arrange it such that my husband could come, too, so it would be like a family vacation.
“One of the main things we used to do together when she was young was playing golf. I started Marissa off when she was eight, sending her to a golf professional for lessons. She turned out to be a real natural, with a lovely, easy swing.
“When she was in the afternoon session in primary school, we would play a few holes of golf at the Singapore Island Country Club every morning after she finished her homework, then have lunch before I took her to school and went to work.
“She used to compete and won many junior golf championships. When she was 12, my husband caddied for her when she competed in the Yokohama Golf Classic in Singapore and she came in third. And when she was 14, she got a hole-in-one.
“I’m very proud of her, although I was surprised when she won the L’Oreal grant last year. I mean, there are so many other researchers out there. I have to say, though, that she is very focused on her job. And when Marissa is set on doing something, she will do whatever she needs to get it done.
“Another bit of advice I give her is how to deal with people, because we are very alike that way—we’re both very straightforward. I’ve never hesitated to tell people what I think, and in a way that has helped me tackle the issue of gender bias in the business world.
“Once, a business acquaintance gave diaries to his contacts. His secretary sent them to all his male business contacts, but because I was a woman, she told me to come and collect mine. I didn’t and when he asked me if I had received it, I told him no and why. He was very embarrassed and immediately had someone bring it to my office.
“Plain speaking has worked for me but Marissa is even more direct than I am and can be very tactless. So I tell her to try to think before she speaks. I tell her, ‘Don’t say it. People don’t like the truth.’
“Since Marissa was young, I have always told her the most important thing is to be herself and to be independent. I have worked my whole life so I feel it is important that she works and never depends on anybody. I’ve always wanted her to have a career so that she can stand on her own two feet.”