Asia’s Rising Scientists: Ho Weang Kee

In a bid to reduce breast cancer mortality, Associate Professor Ho Weang Kee is developing a tool to catch the disease early.

Ho Weang Kee
Associate Professor
University of Nottingham Malaysia
Cancer Research Malaysia

AsianScientist (Aug. 20, 2018) – An early interest in mathematics was the starting point of Dr. Ho Weang Kee’s career in science. While numbers were her original passion, the researcher at the University of Nottingham Malaysia came to realize during her graduate studies that statistical analyses were invaluable to the study of diseases, and she delved right into breast cancer research.

More than 1.5 million women are impacted by breast cancer each year, and in 2015, the disease accounted for 15 percent of all deaths among women. Early diagnosis is by far the best way to reduce breast cancer mortality, but identifying who is most susceptible to developing the disease is just as important to encourage women to get themselves screened regularly.

Hence, Ho is helping to develop a tool that can predict breast cancer risk in women. The work is part of an independent non-profit organization—Cancer Research Malaysia—that conducts and supports research on Asian cancers. Her acumen in mathematics is allowing her to combine genetic and lifestyle factors in calculating breast cancer risk, thereby refining the accuracy of her prediction tool. For her outstanding research, Ho was awarded Malaysia’s 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship and was recognized as a 2018 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Rising Talent.

Ho shared with Asian Scientist Magazine her ambitions and her views on mentorship in science.

  1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet?

    We study whether common heritable breast cancer genetic susceptibility variants could be used to predict the risk of breast cancer.

  2. Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.

    I think research is a long-term task as science is constantly changing and evolving. I am currently developing a breast cancer risk prediction tool for Malaysian women. This project brings together experts from the UK, Malaysia and Singapore, and is led by Cancer Research Malaysia, which runs the largest breast cancer study in Malaysia to identify the genetic and lifestyle determinants of breast cancer risk in Southeast Asian women.

    I am proud to be part of the team and grateful for the opportunity to work with leading experts from the field. It means the world to me to be able to contribute in big or small ways to research that makes a real difference to people’s lives.

    Associate Professor Ho Weang Kee with the breast cancer research team at Cancer Research Malaysia. Credit: Cancer Research Malaysia

  3. What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

    Asia is going to experience a drastic change in the burden of breast cancer. In Malaysia alone, the incidence of breast cancer has been projected to increase by up to 50 percent within the next decade. Therefore, in the absence of population-based mammography screening, there is an urgent need to improve the strategy of breast cancer control in this part of the world.

    We hope that our work can contribute to our understanding of whether it is possible to target expensive mammography at women who have the highest risk of being afflicted with breast cancer. We also envision that by giving women a more accurate picture of their breast cancer risk, we can raise their awareness of the disease and encourage them to be breast aware, as well as motivate them to undergo regular mammography screening.

  4. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

    My interest in mathematics first motivated me to study statistics. But later on, I had a great PhD supervisor, Professor Robin Henderson, who showed me that the subject I have loved since I was young can be such a powerful tool to answer many important scientific questions.

    Then I met my collaborator and friend, Professor Teo Soo-Hwang, who has given me the opportunity to spread my wings in my current research. I am very fortunate to have met many incredible mentors at different stages of my career; they have transformed me into who I am today.

  5. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

    My work used to consist of just theoretical methodology research, meaning that I worked with people who speak the same technical language as me. Now, our team consists of not just statisticians, but epidemiologists, biologists, geneticists, clinicians and so on.

    It was challenging when I first joined the team, but the journey to find a common language with which we can all understand one another was very enjoyable and fulfilling as well.

  6. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?

    In this part of the world that I live in, one of the challenges is lack of talent. We need more people to tackle the never-ending stream of global problems faced by society today. Hence, it is important to encourage younger generations to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

    Associate Professor Ho Weang Kee (sixth from right) at the L’Oréal-UNESCO International Rising Talents Award ceremony. Credit: L’Oréal-UNESCO

  7. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have done instead?

    I would probably have become a teacher—maybe a kindergarten teacher. Early childhood development is important. It has a direct impact on who the child will become in adulthood. Besides the influence of family members, I think early childhood educators play equally important roles in a child’s development process.

  8. Outside of work, what do you do to relax?

    I enjoy doing art and craft with my five-year-old boy—we once spent five hours making a life-sized laptop out of cardboard. My husband and I also have this once-a-week movie-time at home. Sometimes, I go shopping with my mum, who is my personal stylist.

    Family aside, I enjoy hanging out with friends—I have this girls’ night out with my closest buddies once a month. And whenever possible, I read! I love reading.

  9. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

    I would like to remove the fear of cancer.

  10. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

    Get yourself a mentor! The value of mentorship is irreplaceable, especially for an early-career researcher.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Edmend Kooh Chen Kee.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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