When Professor Jackie Yi-Ru Ying and her team discovered a material that would help diabetic patients autoregulate their intake of insulin, it caught the attention of the medical and scientific communities worldwide.
The material (stimuli-responsive polymeric nanoparticles) led to a technology that autoregulates the release of insulin based on the patient’s blood glucose levels – allowing it to be delivered orally or by nasal passage without the need for injections. In turn, this would help prevent hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic conditions in diabetic patients.
Scientists are a “rebellious” bunch, quips the 57-year-old, who is the founder of A*Star’s Nanobio Lab. Having a mindset that challenges conventional wisdom is vital to innovative research, says Prof Ying. “To break new grounds, scientists need to explore novel ideas and pursue what may be deemed by most as unattainable. It requires a fearless ‘can do’ spirit, and lots of passion and perseverance.”
At Nanobio Lab, she oversees a team of over 25 research staff across various disciplines at the research incubator, which develops solutions for medicine, energy and food security. Prof Ying’s research in nanotech spans biomaterials (for drug delivery systems and stem cell culture), diagnostic assays (such as rapid test kits for infectious diseases), safer and better energy storage, and agritech (for improved seed germination and plant growth), among others.
Brilliance, passion and dedication – the all-important trinity of success – has been integral in establishing Prof Ying as one of the world’s leading scientists. But what truly makes her revolutionary is her unflinching determination in challenging the status quo. She is constantly pushing for solutions that will make a huge impact on people’s lives, whether it’s developing biomedical inventions for the healthcare sector, or coming up with ways to improve the growth of produce to boost Singapore’s food security.
“Some scientists are driven by external factors like KPIs and promotions. However, the fundamental purpose of science is to understand the truth of nature. It’s essential to produce accurate and useful knowledge, as well as to train students and contribute to society. This responsibility is critical,” she says.
Prof Ying’s achievements allude to her ethos: The illustrious nanobiotechnology scientist has 200 primary patents and patent applications under her belt (and counting). Throughout her 32-year career, she has been a recipient of numerous accolades, the most recent include the prestigious King Faisal Prize – the award honours outstanding individuals in service to Islam, the Arabic language and literature, science, and medicine – and, of course, Her World’s 2023 Woman of the Year award.
To date, 42 of Prof Ying’s 200 primary patents and patent applications have been licensed to multinational companies and start-ups for nanomedicine, cell and tissue engineering, medical diagnostics and energy applications. Her 391 publications have received more than 48,820 citations.
To put these achievements into perspective: The average number of patent applications per inventor is three, according to Professor Dennis Crouch from the University of Missouri School of Law, while an Institute for Scientific Information paper is considered in the top 10 per cent when it has been cited over 100 times over a 10-year period.
Working with her is akin to training for the Olympics, says Prof Ying, who has taught at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she was the university’s youngest full professor in chemical engineering at the age of 35.
She likens her approach to being a coach: “For example, if you have to do this high jump, I will keep on raising the bar. It’s very difficult – if you’re not trained to a certain level, there is no Olympics for you, ever.
“I always tell my students that you have to think twice if you want to go into research, because it’s easier to study for a PhD. If you want to excel, you must be operating at a world-class level. Having a PhD is like a passport, but it’s useless if you’re not pushing boundaries and tackling significant problems. The real impact comes from addressing vital, unsolved problems.”
Finding a higher calling
Prof Ying strikes a sprightly and youthful image. At first glance, one might assume that she could be in her mid 40s – she was even mistaken for a child when she was a student at Princeton University.
“When I was studying for my PhD in chemical engineering, I spent a considerable amount of time flying between Europe and the US. The flight attendants would give me colour pencils during my flights. I must have been around 20 years old then,” the diminutive professor recalls with a laugh.
Often dressed in a shirt-and-pants combo at the lab, Prof Ying walks with a bounce in her step, a gait that’s emphasised by her preference for sports shoes. A brightly coloured hijab frames her face, complementing her sunny and confident disposition.
“In the past, [professors] used to dress up for lectures, but now, we can’t be bothered because we have to rush to our labs afterwards. We also spend extended hours at work, often around 75 to 80 hours a week. This has been my life since I was 20 or 21 years old,” she says.
Born in Taipei in 1966, Prof Ying moved to Singapore with her family when she was seven years old, when her father joined the faculty of Chinese literature as senior lecturer at Nanyang University (now known as Nanyang Technology University). She studied at Rulang Primary School, and later at Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) in her secondary years. It was there that she made friends who are Muslims, and learning about their faith sparked an interest in Islam.
Prof Ying smiles as she recounts a childhood memory of when she would spend time swimming laps in an Olympic-sized swimming pool at NTU, and reflecting on the meaning of life while floating in the water afterwards.
“I was probably around 10 or 11 years old when I started ruminating about the meaning of life. My parents were not of a particular faith, but felt we should be exposed to religion and sent us to Sunday school from a young age. I attended a Christian kindergarten in Taipei, a Chinese-stream primary school in Singapore, and only had Muslim friends in secondary school. I was very interested in learning about different religions,” she shares.
Although Prof Ying was raised as a Christian, she felt a strong affinity towards Islam. She eventually became a Muslim when she was 35 years old.
“The Quran is an amazing book. It’s difficult to understand, and you really need to have a love of knowledge, because it covers so many areas [of life]. For example, it offers insights into why certain practices are important, and aims for human equality and understanding, which makes a lot of sense to me,” she says.
Subverting gender norms
While she discovered a lifelong love of Islam during her formative years, her path towards a career in Stem wasn’t clear until she moved from Singapore to New York City.
“I had amazing chemistry teachers in high school and at college. When I entered university, I initially majored in electrical engineering, but switched to chemical engineering because I love chemistry,” she says.
Prof Ying subsequently did her PhD at Princeton University, and postdoctoral studies in Germany. “My professors [at Princeton University] were very supportive, and encouraged me to do a PhD and consider an academic career. They were exceptional mentors who saw something special in me,” she says.
After receiving her PhD in chemical engineering in 1991, Prof Ying spent a year researching nanocrystalline materials at the Institute for New Materials in Saarbrucken, Germany, under the tutelage of German physics and nanotechnology researcher Herbert Gleiter.
In 1992, she joined the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the age of 26, and 10 years later, she became a tenured professor at the university.
It’s a remarkable achievement for anyone in the field, and an especially significant one for an Asian woman in a male-dominated sector. The lack of representation was stark, even in something as mundane as the height of the blackboards at MIT.
Prof Ying shares: “We had these enormous lecture halls with nine blackboards arranged in a three by three grid. They could be adjusted up and down, and I could only reach the first row. These blackboards were designed for much taller men, as Americans are generally quite tall.
“Interestingly, I was the first female Asian professor in MIT’s engineering department. At the time, there was only one other Asian female professor at the school, and she was in the field of biology.”
The thought that she was subverting gender norms – that professors of prestigious universities were typically elderly Caucasian men – had not crossed her mind then. “In fact, I didn’t even realise it until someone pointed it out to me much later. Nowadays, there are more women professors, but there are still fewer of us who are Asian and female,” she says.
Championing the power of mentorship
Having already established herself in the realm of science, Prof Ying could have continued a life of academia. Then, an opportunity to return to Singapore came around.
Amid Singapore’s bid to become one of the world’s leading hubs in biomedical sciences during the early noughties, former A*Star chairman Philip Yeo sought out the world’s top researchers, including Prof Ying, to help establish the industry.
She was recruited to return to Singapore in 2003 to be the founding executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Biopolis. As the world’s first bioengineering and nanotechnology research institute, IBN’s goal is not simply to conduct cutting-edge research at the interface of science, engineering and medicine, but also to find ways to commercialise them successfully. Besides training over 120 PhD students, the institute has helped kick-start 13 spin-off companies; three of them have already been successfully listed publicly.
During her 15 years of tenure at IBN, Prof Ying led a multidisciplinary team of 170 researchers, who have published over 1,330 papers and filed more than 650 patents. IBN also established the Youth Research Program (YRP) in 2003, which to date has seen the participation of over 124,000 students and teachers from 290 Singapore and overseas schools.
It has provided mentorship opportunities to over 2,900 students and teachers in full-time research internships. YRP has served as an incubator for future talents in Stem, with 230 of the student interns going on to receive national scholarships, and pursuing further studies in science and engineering.
“Many of our YRP students are now pursuing and leading research in various institutes, universities and companies,” shares Prof Ying.
In 2018, she set up Nanobio Lab under AStar. She also co-founded Cellbae – a diagnostics and reagents spin-off company that develops diagnostic assays (including the first made-in-Singapore Covid-19 rapid test kit TEP@RT), and provides veterinary and food testing services.
With mentorship having made an indelible impact on her personal and academic growth during her youth, Prof Ying continues to give back by being a mentor with Mendaki’s Project Protege, a programme that nurtures young Muslims who are keen on furthering themselves in science.
One of her former mentees, Dr Muhammad Nadjad Abdul Rahim, 35, who participated in Project Protege when he was a 24-year-old student at National University of Singapore, is now working with her at Cellbae as its operations and product development director.
For Dr Nadjad, what makes Prof Ying’s lab different, aside from the rigorous environment, is her open-mindedness to responses from researchers and scientists of all stripes.
“As a leader, she is open to input from everyone, and every input is taken seriously. I remember that when I was doing my first year of PhD, despite the fact that I was very junior, she considered the logic that my question was centred around. You can disagree with her – as long as our objectives are aligned,” he says.
Embracing the joys of motherhood
Prof Ying is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, but a tiger mum she certainly is not. A softer side emerges when the conversation shifts to her relationship with her only daughter, Chan Hsi-Min, a chemical engineering undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley.
The 21-year-old is also a photographer and editor for her university’s student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Hsi-Min now only returns twice a year from the US to Singapore during the winter and summer breaks, but the physical distance does not deter the regular mother-daughter bonding sessions over Whatsapp. Hsi-Min often shares Youtube videos of Chinese rappers and hip-hop artists performing complex Mandarin lyrics at mindboggling speeds, which Prof Ying enjoys, describing some of the performers as “unique in their poetic and modern musical styles”.
The joys of motherhood came rather late for the professor, who had Hsi-Min when she was 35. The mood in the room turns philosophical as Prof Ying reflects on motherhood, wherein much of her journey has been shaped by her Islamic faith.
“When you’re pregnant, some people pray for their child to be happy, healthy, and intelligent, in that order. Why? Because if you have a baby who is constantly fussy or unhealthy, the importance of their intelligence is less significant, as you’ll be consumed with worry for their well-being,” she says.
It is with this outlook that she takes on a more supportive role as a parent by encouraging her daughter to discover her own path in life. Though she does not specifically steer her child towards a career in Stem, Hsi-Min had already shown a deep interest in science as a young toddler – a gift she may well have inherited from Prof Ying.
“I observed something about her when she was very young, around one-and-a-half years old. She was drawing, something children often do. However, what struck me was that she drew a birthday cake from both a front view and a top view. I looked at it and thought to myself, ‘Well, this one’s an engineer’,” she says.
Growing up, Hsi-Min displayed a keen interest in science. Prof Ying had encouraged her curiosity by conducting various experiments with her, such as growing crystals, and exposed her to research since she was 11.
“When she was 15, Hsi-Min even represented Singapore’s national team at the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which is a prestigious event,” she says proudly.
Hsi-Min, who studied at RGS like her mum, was also the youngest-ever person, and the second secondary school student, to represent Singapore at ISEF for her development of a kit that detects the Zika virus in 10 minutes.
Many parents in Singapore would be thrilled to have raised a high-achieving child. However, Prof Ying stresses that a child’s happiness and well-being are still paramount, and the connection between mother and child is an inherently precious one that she finds extremely fulfilling.
“To achieve this, you must maintain your own positivity and outlook. This, in turn, shapes how your baby develops. You realise that a child has a unique soul and special God-given talents. These are not inherited from the parents. As parents, we should observe the child’s special strengths and nurture them. This will help them find their interests and fulfil their full potential,” she says.
For the past 20 years, Prof Ying has called Singapore home – it’s also where she has had an “incredibly fulfilling and rewarding experience”, including establishing a world-class research institute
and raising her daughter “in a very safe environment”.
Now, after two decades at A*Star, Prof Ying is moving on to another phase of her career, although she declines to reveal more at the moment.
“Returning to Singapore was a unique opportunity for me to contribute to the growth of scientific research in the country. It allowed me to shape a research ecosystem and make a positive impact on the field, while also fostering a supportive and nurturing environment for the next generation of scientists,” she says.
Prof Ying lets on that the next chapter involves leading research within a hospital and medical school, working with clinicians to solve complex biomedical challenges, and also “driving new technologies towards clinical trials and translation, and successful commercialisation”.
She adds: “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the burgeoning research enterprise in Singapore. My vision is to integrate engineering with medicine, and my mission is to connect the different clinical and academic communities in Asia, Middle East, and the US.
”I hope to catalyse the whole process, so that we can more rapidly make significant impacts in healthcare, and also socio-economically.”
PHOTOGRAPHY Shawn Paul Tan
CREATIVE DIRECTION Windy Aulia
ART DIRECTION Ray Ticsay & Adeline Eng
FASHION DIRECTION Lena Kamarudin
STYLING Adlina Anis, and Neo Lirong, assisted by Sabrina Kong
MAKEUP Sha Shamsi, using Cle de Peau Beaute
COORDINATION Chelsia Tan