A Research Blog

Esther GanDr Esther Gan, recent Duke-NUS Medical School PhD graduate and speaker for her class shares with Microscope about her journey to Duke-NUS and her plans post-graduation.

How did you first learn about Duke-NUS?

I heard about Duke-NUS from one of my immunology professors during my undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia.

I have always been interested in infectious diseases research and my experience in an influenza laboratory further piqued my interest in pursuing this avenue. Coincidentally, Dr Ninan Abraham had a collaborator, Dr Veronika von Messling, who had just moved to Duke-NUS to set up a lab and he highly recommended that I did a year of research with her. She was a veterinarian studying the pathogenesis of influenza in animal models. I ended up working for her for a year as a research assistant. It was amazing the amount of techniques that I learnt from her! We worked with mice, ferrets and monkeys all within a span of a year.

We see that you started your Duke-NUS journey as research assistant and not a PhD student. Why didn’t you jump right into the PhD programme and what finally made you decide to take the plunge?

I didn’t know how I would adjust to Singapore culture – the people and the research - after so many years abroad. My idea was to come, work for a year and assess if it would be a suitable place to do my PhD.  It was tough; I missed the nature, the four seasons, the ability to drive two hours and immediately hit a ski slope. But it wasn’t impossible; I did manage to adjust to life here!

I eventually decided to do my PhD at Duke-NUS for a host of reasons. The most influential factor to me I would say was Professor Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) programme and my eventual PhD mentor. His lab was just opposite mine and time and time again he would discuss with me the option of doing a PhD and encouraged me to take that leap. Realistically I knew I would need a PhD to progress in the field. With an interest in doing dengue research, I couldn’t think of a better advisor to be trained by. 

Also, the EID programme was a unique setup. I liked the idea that the whole programme was working on infectious diseases, which concentrated a large volume of knowledge in a single spot. Working for a year in the department also gave me the opportunity to interact with the people in his lab and I admired how cohesive they all were. Sure everyone worked really hard but it’s always nice to know there are people looking out for you.

In the end this congregation of knowledge turned out to be vital for my PhD. Duke-NUS has a unique system where experts of all disciplines are just a stone’s throw away. Professor David Silver, Director of Graduate Studies at Duke-NUS, played an instrumental role in my project. I was able to walk down a flight of stairs in our building and get advice from him – an expert in lipid biology.  Not only did he provide ideas and knowledge, he also recommended great collaborators at the National University of Singapore. Suffice to say, the decision to join turned out to be a great one!

What is like to work with Prof Ooi?

I can honestly say there isn’t a nicer supervisor to work for than Prof Ooi. Sure we argued over experiments, fought over submitting manuscripts, but at the end of the day, I understood that his main priority was to train and teach me to push my own limits. No pain no gain! But what stood out to me was that while science is extremely important to him, he also cared about our lives outside the lab. I remember during my first year, a close family member was terminally ill back at home in Canada. Without hesitation, he pushed me to go home to visit regularly in spite of everything!

What’s your biggest takeaway from doing a PhD?

My biggest takeaway? The PhD is a group effort. Everyone congratulates the graduate for making it, toughing it out. But when I think back, I would have never made it without a whole group of people behind the scenes.  I cannot emphasize the impact of the people around. For example, we have an amazing post doc in the lab, Dr Chan Kuan Rong, who is just such a nerd that he made us nerdier!

I have a habit of planning too many experiments in a day and being overly optimistic over how fast I can actually work. Whenever I was overwhelmed, lab mates such as Hwee Cheng and Eugenia would always be willing to rescue me from trouble of my own making.

All in all, I learnt that science cannot and should not be done alone, which also means that successes do not ever belong to an individual. 

We have heard that you got a new job – congratulations! Tell us more about that. 

I’m now a research fellow in ViREMiCS, a new collaboration between Duke-NUS and Singhealth. ViREMiCS aims to bring state of the art molecular tools including virology, immunologic, genomic and metabolomics techniques to complement existing technologies for more accurate end point measurements of safety and efficacy evaluation of vaccines and therapeutics. This will hopefully lead to increased accessibility of vaccinations and spur the acceleration of new drugs and vaccine from bench to bedside. It’s exciting because it’s a new venture, and everything is starting from the ground up. 

What do you hope to be doing, career-wise, in 10, 20 and 30 years?

In 10, 20 years? I certainly hope I would still be making some contribution to translational medicine! But to be honest, as much as I can plan, new opportunities and chances will come along the way. I hope that when I look back in 30 years, I will be able to say that I’ve had the flexibility and courage to chase after big ideas and not be afraid of failures, whether they are big or small. 

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