Photography by Veronica Tay

If anyone has a clear vision and a steadfast determination to harness the power of research for life-changing discoveries, it’s Dr Christine Cheung. The vascular biologist has been on a decade long quest to find a way to accurately predict if patients are prone to blood vessel diseases such as stroke and dementia.

The now 35-year old’s research resulted in her being named an honouree – and the only one who was a woman – at the 2018 Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Singapore Awards by the Junior Chamber International Singapore.

Dr Cheung continually works on convincing local philanthropists of the need to fund basic scientific research for its far-ranging human and medical benefits.

“Basic exploratory research – as opposed to research with a specific application, such as for a cure or preventing a disease – may seem ‘aimless’ to investors, yet it’s actually very necessary,” she explains.

“It’s basic research which provides evidence from which important findings and breakthroughs come. For science to be strengthened as an enterprise, there must be real fundamental knowledge.”

Up next for her is the world stage. Dr Cheung has been selected as one of 40 scientists in the World Economic Forum’s Young Scientists Community, which is tasked to help world political and business leaders understand the impact of science on global issues. Her two-year commitment began in July with a global conference in Dalian, China.

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Photo: Ong Wee Jin for the Straits Times

Closer to home, she has another cause to champion: Having navigated the challenges of working in the male-dominated field of research, she wants to serve as an example to other women and show them that they too can take up such careers.

Dr Cheung’s fascination with science began in her teens, when she saw a photo of the Vacanti “ear mouse” (a laboratory mouse that had cartilage in the shape of a human ear grown on its back in the 1990s).

Now, she leads a research team made up mostly of women at the Laboratory of Molecular and Vascular Medicine at Nanyang Technological University, where she is also an assistant professor at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

I’m a strong believer in mentoring,” Dr Cheung declares. “I keep my doors open, spend time with my staff  and students, discuss their career aspirations, and address matters such as the challenges of having a baby while doing their PhD, or how to handle situations where others compete for their resources.”

Dr Cheung, who cuts a confident yet maternal figure, adds: “Women are under-represented in research because it requires post-graduate studies that take up your time from your late 20s to your early 30s, which is when many people want to start families.” “We can have it all,” she insists. “But we shouldn’t try to achieve everything at the same time.”

Dr Cheung, a mother of a three-year-old girl, shares: “I waited until I completed my PhD before I got married at 31 and had my daughter, Clare, a year later. Take on one big thing at a time and with a clear mind so you can focus on excelling in it and have a higher chance of success.” 

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This was first published in the August issue of our magazine.