Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology; Agency for Science, Technology and Research
AsianScientist (Mar. 14, 2019) – Leave a banana out in the open and before long it will attract fruit flies—Drosophila melanogaster, as they are known in scientific circles. Looking at these tiny insects, it may be hard to imagine that they have played a significant role in our understanding of human biology.
Indeed, the short life cycles and relatively simpler genetic makeup of fruit flies means that scientists today still rely on these insects to tease out the underlying molecular mechanisms of organismal development, health and disease. It has been estimated that 75 percent of human disease genes have a counterpart in D. melanogaster.
In the field of neuroscience, Dr. Sherry Aw, group leader at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), Singapore, is using fruit flies to understand how movement disorders occur in neurodegenerative disease. Her research has revealed how molecules known as microRNAs help protect and maintain the functions of specific neurons. For her outstanding work, Aw was honored with the 2019 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science International Rising Talent fellowship.
Aw spoke to Asian Scientist Magazine about why she is passionate about her research and what she hopes to achieve in the coming years.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
I study movement disorders—neurodegenerative diseases that are accompanied by uncontrollable movement abnormalities—in a less complex animal, the fruit fly. Through my research, I seek to shed light on what happens in neurons to cause movement dysfunctions during aging and disease.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
As an early career scientist, it took time for me to build up confidence that I was asking interesting and viable scientific questions. During my time as a postdoctoral research fellow, I had an idea to develop a molecular sensor for microRNAs. The technique was based on modifying a previously-published fluorescent RNA complex.
When I got my idea to work, I felt very proud as it was something I had conceived and for which I had obtained the grant funding to complete. We have now patented the sensor, which we named ‘Pandan’ after our beloved fragrant plant, and are working to further develop it as a tool for disease diagnosis.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope to uncover the molecular and physiological basis of movement dysfunctions, such as tremors, that manifest in many neurodegenerative diseases. Also, I hope that our molecular sensor can be used as a clinical diagnostic to detect microRNAs as a class of disease biomarkers.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I was drawn to the problem of neurodegenerative diseases because of their growing prevalence in our aging societies. For example, one to three percent of people aged over 60 will develop Parkinson’s disease.
Hence, my passion for research stems from the hope of discovering something that can be used in the treatment of neurodegenerative disease in the clinic. At the same time, I believe that there is still much to be learned about how our motor systems degenerate with age, and what that tells us about the normal functioning of our nervous systems.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
A lack of self-confidence has always been my greatest challenge, and I think this is something that many women face. Fortunately, I have had mentors who really believed in and encouraged me. Even now, there are senior researchers who spend precious time reading my grants and papers, and helping me perfect my presentations, simply because they want me to improve.
Such mentors are invaluable, and I really appreciate their efforts and guidance. I remind myself to pay it forward by encouraging the next generation of researchers in the same way.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
Peer review is a problem that comes to mind. Preprint servers like bioRxiv are an important part of the solution as they allow the community to weigh in on work pre-publication.
I feel that this is a big advantage for lesser-known research groups, as journal editors can see how the scientific community as a whole views the research, rather than rely on just two or three anonymous reviewers.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have done instead?
I would probably have gone to medical school. Later in life, I might have become an entrepreneur or worked in a field related to entrepreneurship.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I spend time with my two children (aged 2 and 5), my husband, family and friends every weekend. I’m very close with my two sisters. We eat, play games, talk about current events, new movies or TV shows and just about any other topic of the day. I also enjoy handcrafting jewelry, checking out new restaurants and catching up on science twitter.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would like to eliminate poverty and the related problem of childhood malnutrition.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Find good mentors who care about your scientific development, as you’ll need people in your corner every step of the way. Surround yourself with people who will encourage you when you’re down and celebrate with you when you succeed. Finish one project before moving on to the next one, and don’t give up!
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: Sherry Aw.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.