One of the new additions to the Word Economic Forum’s league of Young Global Leaders, scientist Juliana Chan is on a quest to show the world that Asia is where some of the most ground-breaking scientific research is being done. Melissa Gail Sing finds out what makes her tick.

Joining the ranks of Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Chelsea Clinton of the Clinton Foundation as well as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, athlete and Fountain of Youth founder Ian Thorpe and more recently, tennis player Li Na and entrepreneur Ivanka Trump, three Singaporeans were recently named as the newest additions to the World Economic Forum’s list of Young Global Leaders (YGL). They are part of a group of 187 high achievers from around the world who have been recognised for shaking up their domain, be it politics, business, academia, media, the arts or philanthropy. They were selected not only for their professional achievements and contributions to society but also their potential in building a better world for humanity through their leadership and insights.

One of the three honorees from Singapore, Juliana Chan, assistant professor at the Nanyang Technological University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine who is also a former research fellow at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) is well respected for her contributions to the scientific field, particularly nanotechnology. Particularly interested in science and communication, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni also founded the Asian Scientist Magazine in 2011. Even before the Young Global Leader honour, she had received a string of accolades—most recently, in 2014, she was named one of 10 Innovators Under 35 (Asia and Australia) by MIT Technology Review—and her work has been featured in leading international publications. 

For this married mother of one, a typical day involves a great deal of paperwork, from writing grant applications to reading and writing scientific papers. She also meets with her students and staff, and when she is lecturing in a particular semester, she’ll be preparing lecture notes and writing exam papers. So, come evenings and weekends, she looks forward to nothing more than unwinding with her husband and their daughter at the pool.

Melissa Gail Sing finds out what makes this new Young Global Leader tick.

Congratulations on being named a Young Global Leader! What does this honour mean for you personally, for the science community, and for Singapore?
It was entirely unexpected. It is great news as the scientific community is generally underrepresented at the World Economic Forum. I later realised that I’m the first professor from Nanyang Technological University and A*STAR  to become a YGL, and that people like Li Na (tennis player), Ivanka Trump (entrepreneur) and Elizabeth Holmes (founder of Theranos) are also in the class of 2015. All of this is quite intimidating, if you think about it.

What are some of the initiatives you will be involved in as a member of the Forum?
I aim to achieve the following: first, to promote science communications in Asia, and second, to highlight all the amazing scientific research coming out of Asia. I believe I will achieve both aims by expanding the reach of Asian Scientist Magazine, which I founded in 2011, to this audience of heavyweights.

What are you most excited about as a new Young Global Leader?
I’m pretty excited about meeting Bill Gates and Al Gore as I have heard that they attend the World Economic Forum summit in Davos regularly. I’m hoping that Hillary Clinton will attend next year. I’m also hoping to make many friends from the YGL community—it consists of 900 people from all backgrounds.

Tell me about the roots of your passion in science, and did you always aspire to be a scientist?
I was always nerdy as a kid, and as a student at CHIJ Katong Convent and Victoria Junior College. I thought that I would apply to medical school, but after coming to terms with myself that I would make a terrible doctor for various reasons, including my fear of needles and blood, I decided to look elsewhere. Science was always my strong subject, so why not?

How did this passion lead to your area of interest, nanomedicine?
Nanomedicine—or the use of nanoparticles to deliver medicine—is not a subject many young people learn about in school. When I was a first-year PhD student at MIT, I attended a talk by Professor Bob Langer, who spoke to such a packed audience that there wasn’t even any standing room left. I recall being dumbstruck and slightly unnerved by his talk and so I emailed him, asking him to take me on as his graduate student. The rest is history.

Why is this area of study so important today?
Many types of sunblock lotions and cosmetics are nano-formulations; most people just don’t know that they are. We use synthetic and natural polymers and lipids to package drugs. The hope is to reduce the dosage required therefore reducing the side effects that accompany these drugs.

What scientific research are you working on now at your laboratory at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine?
Researchers in my lab design novel nanoparticles for the delivery of medicines. In particular, I work on nano-based treatments for eczema and atherosclerosis.

How will the findings of the study change the world?
I don’t know about changing the world, but I hope that the nanoparticle-delivered drugs will some day be used in the clinic to help people suffering from eczema and atherosclerosis—both are chronic diseases and affect one’s quality of life significantly.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the scientific research community today?
I think that eroding grant money for basic research is chipping away at our ability to collectively produce truly fundamental breakthroughs. This isn’t a region-specific problem; it is the same everywhere. Fortunately, scientific budgets in Singapore are very good as compared to elsewhere.

What is your big wish for the scientific research domain?
I wish that more girls will study science and technology subjects, and that more women will take on scientific careers.

What are some of your proudest moments?
Winning the Singapore Youth Award in 2013 was fun. It allowed me to meet many passionate young individuals who continue to inspire me. The first print issue of Asian Scientist Magazine in January 2014 was a significant milestone for me. Every three months, when an issue of the magazine comes out in print, I get all giddy with excitement like a little girl opening a box of candy.

Being recognised as one of the top 10 innovators in Asia by MIT Technology Review in 2014 was another big moment. I’m now a judge for the annual competition. Being a YGL is wonderful, because it comes with a six-year tenure and an open invitation to attend many World Economic Forum summits and leadership training programs at the JFK School of Government at Harvard University and the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

Who is your role model?
I have many scientific role models. But I think I am most inspired by SPRING Singapore Chairman Philip Yeo, an incredibly visionary individual who has done so much for our scientific sector. Many people, including myself, are direct or indirect beneficiaries of his work.

Any unfulfilled ambitions?
I’ve always wanted to learn to code, but I have never found the time to improve my rudimentary HTML and CSS coding skills. If I had been born in the 1990s or 2000s, I may have become a computer scientist instead!

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