– Yow Ying Ming Ivan –
As a two-timer, I had to declare my love and allegiance to only one – education or research. The love story started with an inspiring high school teacher who showed me how an educator’s dedicated care and constant belief can change an academic renegade (it’s not too difficult to guess I am the mentioned) into one that believes in education. Both my parents did not even finish high school and I was expected to fall into the same category.
However, there was something that made my high school teacher place his bets on me, along with hours of private tutoring, and my results soared alongside an awed faith in education. With an intention to emulate my high school teacher, I embarked on a government undergraduate scholarship to study Life Sciences at the National University of Singapore. Aspiring to become an educator, I fiddled as much as I could in the Life Sciences hoping to learn as much as a student, and transfer the knowledge to my students in the future when I became a teacher. Little did I know my undergraduate journey became a rendezvous with research.
My tryst with research begun with an undergraduate research opportunity in a Functional Genomics laboratory whereby I worked on the association of prostaglandin dehydrogenase gene with ectopic rhinitis, dermatitis and asthma under the supervision of Professor Chew Fook Tim. Countless hours of pipetting and gel runs should have been a daunting experience for an undergraduate, but the sense of achievement and satisfaction masked the backaches and sleepless nights.
Not knowing if this was love at first sight or merely an infatuation, I proceeded with another tryst with research. This time at a laboratory working on study of cell division in mammalian systems. I thought it would be a good experience for me to try out something different from functional genomics. I was not able to sense anything special about research yet – at least my love for education was still much more overwhelming. Until Professor Maki Murata-Hori, my then Principal Investigator at the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, offered me something that uncovered a brand-new predilection – Biophysics.
Those times spent in solemnity with normal rat kidney epithelial cells on polyacrylamide substrates of varying stiffness not only opened my mind to how the environment affects processes such as mitosis, my appreciation for mechanics’ influence on biology spurred an ineffable joy in me whenever I made my way to the laboratory during the wee hours every single day. As my undergraduate days were numbered, my heart was torn apart knowing that I had to stick with education for four years to fulfill my scholarship bond since the penalty to renounce it came with a hefty price.
Upon graduation from my undergraduate studies, I went on to obtain a postgraduate diploma in education from the National Institute of Education, an institution within the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and commenced my teaching career. During the three years of teaching, I was bestowed with the authority to do what I always wanted to do for science education – mentorship of students for science competitions, coordinator roles for curriculum planning of Biology teaching in the high school I was teaching, and coordination of short research internship between my high school and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR)’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN).
I never ever forget about following in the footsteps of my own high school teacher that inspired me. I continued to work hard teaching students with the aim of inculcating interest and passion for science into my students. I extended my influence on my students into interdisciplinary research by advocating for cross application of biology, chemistry, and physics with mathematics to solve real life problems such as engineering issues faced in solar cells for energy efficient cars or using genetically modified bacteria as biosensors to measure levels of water pollution. I was happily ‘married’ to education at that point of time, but recollection of research continued to flashback whenever I was engaged in any research related competitions or internships.
As in any relationship, once there are two parties in your heart, things will inevitably get complicated. I was stranded between two loves and unknowing what lies ahead of me in the future, I studied and obtained two Master degrees, one in applied physics and the other in education. Family and friends warned against going with research as I would lose my promising career in education given the awards won and back-to-back promotions. I needed a listening ear for my predicament, and I sought comfort from my current Principal Investigator, Professor Yusuke Toyama.
He shared with me his academic journey, from undergraduate to graduate school to postdoctoral training and finally to his current appointment in Mechanobiology Institute (MBI). We spent hours talking over coffee with a scenic view of the University Town and my decision was final – I left the education scene after the end of my scholarship bond, and embarked on a new journey in life as a PhD student in MBI. What drew me over was a simple fact – the university setting is where I can have the best of both worlds: education AND research.
To this very day, I will often get comments on being a fool leaving a well-paid full-time job for a career in research that may not guarantee me an academic position. However, I am still full of gusto entering the laboratory every single day facing new challenges with the experiments I execute, and yet can interact with students not just from Singapore but also from all over the world who visit MBI. I guess, and I wish, I will be in this polygamous relationship for a long time to come.
Yow Ying Ming Ivan is a PhD Student in the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore. LinkedIn