An Asian Scientist Abroad: Alan Aw

Asian Scientist Magazine caught up with our first-ever intern, Mr. Alan Aw, on his recent scientific publications and his aspirations for the future.

AsianScientist (Jun. 19, 2018) – At Asian Scientist Magazine, one of our key missions is to nurture an interest in science communication among students. That means welcoming interns into our fold, and we’ve had some brilliant minds pass through our doors who have gone on to become ardent advocates for science in their respective careers. Mr Alan Aw is one such individual.

Aw’s summer internship with Asian Scientist Magazine began in March 2014. A self-professed “math nerd,” he seemed better acquainted with numbers than words, mathematics Olympiads being his forte. Aw had some time to spare before leaving for his undergraduate studies at Stanford University in the US, and applied for the internship to get a glimpse of what it meant to write about science professionally. As it turned out, he had a knack for it, deftly covering stories such as From Field To Fork and Turning Pee Into Power.

Four years on, Aw is now a scientist himself. He recently added two peer-reviewed research papers to his name, one in Nature Communications and the other in the Journal of Mathematical Biology. We caught up with Aw to find out how he’s doing in the US and what his plans are for the future.

Hi Alan, how have you been and what have you been up to since you interned with Asian Scientist Magazine?

I have been well! I am currently pursuing and finishing my undergraduate studies in mathematical and computational science at Stanford University; starting in August 2018, I will be heading to the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a PhD degree in statistics.

I’ve worked on a number of projects, both in scientific research and outside of science. My scientific research has largely focused on improving the way genetic data is analyzed, to understand evolutionary relationships or to infer population history.

Outside of science, I recently worked on a project which explores how Stanford female undergraduates are thriving in tech and Silicon Valley. The short answer is: there’s still a long way to go, but things are looking very optimistic!

What were some of the key takeaways from your experience as an intern with Asian Scientist Magazine?

Science communication is hard! I’ve noticed how there is a trade-off between scientific accuracy and sensationalism when it comes to reporting on or communicating science. It’s really a nuance.

As an intern, I had the privilege and joy of working closely with Dr. Rebecca Tan, managing editor of Asian Scientist Magazine, who really understood this nuance and helped me find my formula for repurposing a press release. To this day, my editorial and writing style—when it comes to communicating science—largely follows this magical formula! So, takeaway #1: be aware of the nuances in science communications and use them to communicate responsibly.

My internship with Asian Scientist Magazine also opened my eyes to how little science is communicated in geographical Asia. Science communication is important, especially if we want to keep on increasing scientific literacy in Asia. The problem is, most scientists aren’t going to do it, or aren’t doing enough of it. I think there are multiple ways to attack this problem, such as getting more scientists interested in communication, or finding attractive ways to engage the public. So here’s takeaway #2: science communication is hard but important, so we have to be patient.

While I was with Asian Scientist Magazine, editor-in-chief Dr. Juliana Chan went the extra mile of introducing me to work beyond vanilla science communication. Communicating science sustainably requires an understanding who the audience is, what the audience demands, and how to find new audiences—all within a sensible business framework. This brings me to takeaway #3: it takes more than a passionate communicator to keep the field of science communication moving forward.

You recently were a co-author on a study in Nature Communications titled ‘Cultural Hitchhiking and Competition Between Patrilineal Kin Groups Explain the Post-Neolithic Y-Chromosome Bottleneck.’ What was the motivation for conducting this study?

Our study was motivated by a 2015 paper, which inferred a decline in effective population sizes of male populations throughout the Old World (which includes the regions of Africa, Asia and Europe) about 7,000 to 5,000 years ago. However, this [decline in effective population size] was not observed for female populations. In case you’re wondering, effective population size refers to the number of reproducing individuals in a population.

This inference puzzled my friend and co-author, Zeng Tian Chen, who sought to answer the question, “What could explain the inference of this decline in number of reproducing males but not in females?” It was at a cafe in San Francisco where he explained his hypothesis and where I got interested in the problem myself.

What was the key finding from your study?

Using mathematical models, we demonstrated that the patrilineal structure of cultural groups engaging in competition or warfare may explain the inference of male population decline, which we interpreted as a decline in male genetic diversity. The term patrilineal basically means that within each group, the males were genetically very similar.

What were some of the challenges you encountered while conducting the study? How did you overcome them?

Figuring out how to synthesize so much information was tremendously challenging but exciting. Tian Chen’s hypothesis was backed by a lot of anthropological, ethnographic, historical and archaeological data and evidence, and I had to think of ways to have these studies interact with the mathematical models I was considering. If you’re a modeler, you would have a sense of the limits of the models you can compute or analyze, and the onus lies on you to figure out which parameters should be kept or discarded.

Another challenge was for us to become intellectually and culturally versatile. During the early stages of the study, because both Tian Chen and I were not completely familiar with the literature on archaeology, anthropology and Y-chromosome genetics, we had to Skype and meet with many experts in these fields. Each field has its own intellectual culture (lingo and ways of reasoning), so we had to figure out how to speak their language.

What’s next for you in terms of research and your career?

I’m at a stage where I’ve noticed and come to appreciate both the usefulness of mathematical and computational approaches in many disciplines, as well as the incredible potential of connecting the threads between them to create more empirically- and experientially-verified theories and hypotheses. I’m looking forward to exploring new research and possible careers through this lens at UC Berkeley.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: JW Ho.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Lim Zeng Hao completed a degree in biological sciences at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. In his spare time, he dabbles in new languages and daydreams about the eventual publication of his epic fantasy book series. Zeng Hao is a science writer with Asian Scientist Magazine.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist