AsianScientist (Mar. 10, 2014) – Assistant Professor Sierin Lim, from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering (SCBE), shares with us her passion for protein engineering and what inspires her as a researcher.
She is the most recent winner of the L’Oréal Singapore For Women In Science (FWIS) national fellowship (life sciences category) for her research on how proteins can be used as vehicles to deliver drugs into the body.
“I think that proteins are fascinating,” says Prof. Lim, who has been interested in naturally-occurring nanostructures for the past 15 years.
She tells us that proteins are able to self-assemble into complex structures, and that she has devoted the past eight years to studying how proteins such as E2, ferritin and Vault can be modified through protein engineering.
“We work on proteins that form cage-like structures of nanometer size. These protein cages are usually assembled from multiple sub-units. One of the protein cages that we are working on is ferritin – an iron storage protein in our body and in other living organisms,” says Prof. Lim.
“We found that tailoring the amount of iron molecules in the ferritin results in unique magnetic properties for potential application as an MRI contrast agent. MRI contrast agents are important in enhancing images, for instance in the detection of tumors. We can also load drugs into ferritin giving it a new therapeutic function.”
Other than her work on nanocapsules, Prof. Lim is also trying to understand the highly efficient energy capture system of plant chloroplasts and use them as molecular batteries.
In recognition of her pioneering research, Prof. Lim was awarded the 2013 L’Oréal Singapore FWIS fellowship, which comes with S$30,000 in grant money to further her work.
Empowering women in science
With the financial backing provided by UNESCO, L’Oréal Foundation and other stakeholders, Prof. Lim plans to bring a woman scientist on board to work on a project that uses these protein cages in dermatology applications.
But she’s not stopping at just hiring one employee. Prof. Lim is keen to partner with organizations and women scientists to launch a program that inspires girls and young women to pursue careers in science and engineering.
“The fellowship gives me the opportunity to reach out and encourage women to consider science and the various aspects of it, from R&D to administration,” she says.
Indeed, Prof. Lim was lucky enough to have other women mentor her early on in her career, she says. According to her, an early introduction to science in one’s life is crucial. But women continue to face challenges in their work-life balance, she says, and Prof. Lim advises aspiring women scientists to keep trying and never give up.
“On the bright side, there is an increasing number in women choosing science as a career compared to 20 years ago as shown by various statistics. In Singapore alone, women make up about 30 percent of R&D manpower based on the 2013 Yearbook of Statistics,” says Prof. Lim.
Life beyond the lab
Prof. Lim also hopes to dispel the perception that scientists are boring or predictable.
“Scientists are very creative and fun-loving people too! We often have interests in topics outside of our science that range from business to arts and culture, not to mention being multi-talented. Many scientists have hidden artistic talents.”
In fact, she highlights how her job is that of a teacher, writer, business person, motivator and counselor all rolled into one.
“I get to work with people: collaborators and students from different scientific and social backgrounds. The idea exchanges are exhilarating, especially when the ideas crystallize and materialize into scientific projects, and the results are subsequently communicated to the community,” she muses.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: NTU.
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