Homecoming Science Hero

Asian-American professor Jackie Ying left behind a stellar career in the US to come to Singapore to start the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. She shares why she is happy making Singapore her home.

ILLUSTRATION THAM SZEMIN

I

n 2002, Professor Jackie Ying was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) when she was offered the chance to head the new Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore.

Aside from the challenge to be able to contribute to the then burgeoning biotech scene in Singapore and shape the world’s first multidisciplinary research institute dedicated to bioengineering and nanotechnology, the 50-year-old American was excited by the opportunity to be back in the country she grew up in.

Taiwan-born Prof Ying moved to Singapore in 1973 at age seven when her father took a job teaching Chinese literature at the then Nanyang University. “I had a very happy childhood in Singapore,” she says, professing that her school days in the country were the best days of her life. She fondly recalls having a wonderful time at Raffles Girls’ School, an independent girls’ secondary school. She participated in the school’s track and field team and joined youth uniformed group the National Cadet Corps.

Her family moved to New York when she was 15, and she went reluctantly. She completed her PhD at Princeton University and joined MIT as a faculty member at the age of 26. At 35, she was already a full professor at MIT’s chemical engineering department – the youngest to do so in the history of the department.

Despite having built a very impressive academic career in the United States, her fond memories of Singapore fuelled her desire to return in 2003. To move from a country she has called home for over 20 years and start life anew in another was not the easiest of decisions to make, but Prof Ying relied on the strong emotional attachment she felt for the country. When she left MIT in 2003, some people thought she was crazy, she recalls.

“In Singapore, we show that people of different races and religions can live together happily and harmoniously. It goes beyond just tolerance. I also like the fact that friends come together to celebrate festive occasions regardless of their beliefs and cultures.”

Professor Jackie Ying, executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology

“Coming to Singapore to start IBN was a great leap of faith, but I have had no regrets,” says Prof Ying, who is now a Singapore permanent resident.

Singapore’s commitment to cutting-edge research that would impact society gave Prof Ying the room to grow as a nanotechnology researcher.

Under her stewardship, IBN has made a significant scientific impact, with more than 1,211 papers published in leading scientific journals. In terms of technological and commercialisation impact, IBN has registered over 609 active patents and has spun off 11 companies. The institute has also trained over 120 PhD students.

CULTURAL DIVERSITY
An important factor that supported her decision to relocate to Singapore was the appeal of living in a multicultural society where people of different faiths live harmoniously together. Prof Ying, who converted to Islam when she was 34, believes that Singapore’s multiculturalism provides a wholesome environment to bring up her 15-year-old daughter. It also enables her daughter to be closer to her Asian roots and learn Mandarin.

She says: “In Singapore, we show that people of different races and religions can live together happily and harmoniously. It goes beyond just tolerance. I also like the fact that friends come together to celebrate festive occasions regardless of their beliefs and cultures.”

Singapore’s openness to and acceptance of different cultures, says Prof Ying, also extends to its rich food culture. The array of food options available, a reflection of the country’s diversity, is also something that she especially missed when she was in the US. Her favourite local dishes are laksa (spicy noodle soup), chicken rice and yong tau fu (stuffed bean curd).

As a way of giving back to a country that has fostered her scientific curiosity, Prof Ying is also involved in nurturing future generations of Singaporean scientists. She is particularly proud of IBN’s Youth Research Program, which introduces students and teachers to cutting-edge scientific research, and inspires them to pursue careers in related fields. To date, more than 2,455 students and teachers have completed research attachments at IBN under the programme.

She regularly gives talks to students and meets with them to cultivate their interest in science. She participated in Mendaki’s Project Protege as a mentor. The project, run by Malay self-help group Mendaki, gives Muslim youth the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by prominent figures within the Muslim community. One of the students she mentored completed an internship at IBN and is now a PhD scholar at the institute.

“I find it very fulfilling to contribute and give back to the local education community. I want to nurture the young generation, as they are our future. I benefited significantly from my education in Singapore, so my work with the students is a way of giving back.”


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