On a quiet Sunday morning, our crew of eight arrives at Biopolis. The campus is a ghost town – the streets are devoid of pedestrians, restaurants are shuttered, and even the convenience store is closed.
When we head up to the third floor of her office building, the first thing that greets us is the smell of freshly brewed Starbucks coffee, followed by Dr Sidney Yee, the CEO of Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star). “Good morning! Help yourselves to some breakfast and coffee,” she chirps, gesturing to a breakfast spread that she had laid out.
Just eight months ago, the scene in this office couldn’t have been more different.
At the start of the outbreak, the race was on to develop a diagnostic test kit to detect the presence of Covid-19. Dr Yee and her team at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*Star) Diagnostics Development (DxD) Hub worked round the clock to help co-develop the Fortitude Kit, which can detect the presence of Covid-19 with high accuracy. It was clear that time was of the essence.
“We literally camped in the office for days and nights,” reveals Dr Weng Ruifen, chief of product development and project management at DxD Hub. In just three weeks, the Fortitude Kit was ready.
The making of a test kit
One of DxD Hub’s functions is to help create clinically validated diagnostics devices that are ready for market adoption. To do so, they work with other scientists and clinicians, to help with the development and commercialisation of their products.
For instance, the Fortitude Kit was a joint effort involving: Dr Masafumi Inoue, Principal Scientist, DxD Hub, A*Star; Dr Sebastian Maurer-Stroh, deputy executive director (Research), Bioinformatics Institute (BII); and Associate Professor Dr Timothy Barkham, senior consultant Medical Microbiologist, Department of Laboratory Medicine at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).
Dr Yee and her team at were brought on because they needed the expertise on making it a feasible product that would promise consistent performance, and ensure that it could be deployed to any lab around the world.
Essentially, we have Dr Yee and her team to thank for the widespread availability of Covid-19 testing kits here.
“Everyone literally just bit the bullet and went ahead. That was incredible. I am extremely grateful,” Dr Yee says of the long hours that the team pulled.
She was equally touched by the collaborative spirit of the scientific community during this crisis.
“It was quite incredible how different parties just decided to work together on something without thinking about drawing up an agreement or laying down any ground rules of how they were going to collaborate,” Dr Yee explains. Instead, everyone just shook hands and got to it.
“To us, it was really equivalent to answering a call of duty. We felt a sense of pride,” she adds.
Her work didn’t end with the Fortitude Kit. DxD Hub went on to co-develop other diagnostics such as the cPass (an invention from Prof Wang Linfa’s lab from Duke-NUS), a rapid smart test kit that can detect neutralising Covid-19 antibodies, and Resolute 2.0, an improved Covid-19 test that can deliver results in less than two hours.
Resolute 2.0 was co-developed with DSO National Laboratories, and is a first-of-its-kind diagnostics test kit that simplifies the testing process by eliminating the need for extraction reagents. It also enables entry-level medical technologists with a basic laboratory set-up to process the test results, which allows for testing capabilities to be ramped up.
As a matter of fact, Resolute 2.0 will be one of our first lines of defence against Covid-19 in this new normal: It’ll be used to screen travellers at Changi Airport’s dedicated testing lab, slated to open next year.
Didn’t set out to do medtech
To be able to make a difference and directly touch people’s lives have been the driving forces for Dr Yee throughout her career.
“I actually didn’t know I would be doing this,” she says, explaining that she had imagined herself being in the medical field, but a lot of the projects she did during her post-doctorate tenure led her to where she is today. However, that didn’t steer her away from her main mantra: “The opportunity to bring the bench closer to a solution that would make a difference to people’s lives.”
Today, she has found a happy place between the “blue-sky possibility” of research and the discipline of product development. “To know that everything we do goes directly into saving lives, and that every person we impact actually impacts the community around him or her – that’s what gets all of us at DxD Hub up,” she says.
Her parents, her guiding force
The word “we” appears a lot in Dr Yee’s conversations, revealing a certain humility and a sincere gratitude towards everything that has brought her to where she is today.
To that end, almost every sentence about her personal life is punctuated with a heartfelt “thank you” to her parents, for their entrepreneurial spirit and how they persevered to raise the standards of their children’s lives – Dr Yee has an older sister and two younger brothers – from their humble beginnings in Kulai, Malaysia.
“Everything I aspire to be is based on the work ethics of my parents. Even though poor, to them, hard work and integrity were non-negotiable,” she says. “Everything I do in my life, they have always been my yardstick.”
With almost unconventional foresight, Dr Yee’s parents decided to send her sister and herself to Canada for higher education in a bid to expose them to a world outside of their Chinese-educated childhood, and give them the necessary foundation for university education. However, the language barrier posed an intimidating challenge at the start.
“It was challenging for us, but she was so courageous. She took every opportunity to speak with people in English,” recalls Jenny Yee, Dr Yee’s older sister. “So even though she’s younger than me by a year, she took charge and took care of a lot of things while we were studying overseas.”
It’s evident that Jenny is very proud of her younger sister’s accomplishments. “Intelligent” and “pride of the family” are some of the descriptives she chooses. She also expresses admiration for what she has done in Singapore’s fight against Covid-19, agreeing that even though she doesn’t work directly with patients, her work has helped to save lives.
Still, perhaps as an older sister, she can’t help but sneak in a cheeky story about Dr Yee as a student.
“She was an excellent student, very hard-working too. She would accomplish whatever she sets her mind to,” Jenny says.
“But when we were university students in America, she had the tendency to leave it till the last minute to study for her exams. Once, she even fell asleep during an exam because she was exhausted from burning the midnight oil. But miraculously, her grades were still very good!” she concludes with a laugh.
After getting her Bachelor’s degree, Dr Yee went on to obtain a doctorate in chemistry from Portland State University on a full scholarship. “She was only 25 when she got her PhD,” beams Jenny.
Being a woman in science
By the time Dr Yee finished her doctorate, she had been away from home for quite some time. So it was a dream opportunity when Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner offered her a position at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), A*Star in Singapore. Soon, other opportunities followed, as well as some entrepreneurial pursuits. She was running a couple of medtech start-ups when she got a call from a senior fellow at A*Star to help develop its medtech platform – “et voila, DxD Hub happened”. She has been with A*Star since 2013, and heading DxD Hub since 2014.
Never let anyone tell you what women can or cannot do.Dr Sidney Yee
Reflecting on her career, Dr Yee recalls there being few female researchers in the field when she joined IMCB in 1993. On occasions, she would find herself among a sea of male researchers at conferences, dialogues, or panels. Despite that, she has never felt the imbalance in her working environment, she insists.
“I do not think it is gender inequality as much as the choices that different women make. We do have many excellent female researchers in Singapore, perhaps we just need more female leaders to help bring them up to a certain stage,” she muses.
She also observes that some of the choices and restrictions may be self-imposed, because as women, we are made differently. “Even if we have an understanding husband and the necessary support at home, our maternal instinct makes us want to be present as well,” she says, referring to the times when she was presented with overseas opportunities, but chose family instead.
Raising strong girls
In that respect, Dr Yee has been able to reconcile those choices. It’s the advice she always gives her two teenage daughters Sophie and Sacha, aged 14 and 17, as well: to never let anyone tell you what women can or cannot do.
“Just do what you enjoy, and whatever it is, you will excel,” she often reminds them. She jokes that her tendency to wear different hats – as a scientist, CEO, technopreneur – puts her daughters in a fix sometimes. There’s never a straightforward answer to the question: “What does your mother do?”
Dr Yee says that a lot of what she does is a conscious effort to set an example to them as girls; to drive home the point that if their mother has been able to achieve all of this as a woman, then nothing in the world can stop them from going after their goals.
“That’s the motivation for a lot of what I do,” she says. Her daughters are at the photoshoot with her, quietly cheering their mother on and watching this celebration of her achievements. This visibility, to Dr Yee, is crucial for the empowerment of the next generation of women.
“I hope Her World will continue to feature more women and their successes, to inspire more women in leadership positions,” she says.