Dr. Andy Tay Kah Ping
Presidential Young Professor
National University of Singapore
AsianScientist (Mar. 5, 2021) – Do a quick search on the Internet and you’ll find that drinking supplements like vitamin C, getting enough rest and maintaining a healthy diet are popular pieces of advice for boosting our immune system. Newly-minted Assistant Professor Andy Tay from the National University of Singapore, however, is taking a different approach: by inventing innovative tools to unleash our immune system’s fullest potential.
Imagine this: a tiny magnetic bacteria robot that could deliver drugs to tumors with incredible precision. He’s also developed a magnetic 3D gel that could promote tissue regeneration and possibly modulate pain—a handy invention that placed him on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2019.
For his efforts to elevate our immune system to new heights, Tay was selected by the World Economic Forum as part of its 2020 Class of Young Scientists—the only Singaporean to make the prestigious list last year. In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Tay gives us an insider’s look into his work and shares his experience as an early-career researcher so far.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
Our immune system is one of the best defense systems; imagine the possibilities if we can engineer it to prevent and cure diseases.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
This project was to develop micro-tools to evolve magnetic bacteria as micro-robots. I am proud of it because it was a project involving three groups in microbiology, bioengineering and astrophysics spanning three continents. It’s a great piece of work to demonstrate the positive impact of inter-disciplinary research and importance of global scientific collaboration.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope to see at least a few of the intellectual properties generated by my team being commercialized. In this way, my research team would have generated tangible impact on healthcare by making cancer treatment cheaper and more effective.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I am a problem-oriented person drawn to challenging questions. At the same time, I am also very motivated to use research to improve medicine. Hence, I ventured into the field of cell-based cancer immunotherapy where my laboratory is developing various materials and tools to engineer the immune system to fight cancer—a disease that accounts for 30 percent of deaths in Singapore.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
As a PhD student, I had to take on a few projects due to funding issues that my PI faced. It ended up being a good thing because it exposed to many research fields and I learned a lot. However, this experience highlights a big problem in research: early-career investigators are not supported well enough, with adverse consequences like disrupting the research progress of students. I hope that grant agencies will take more concrete actions like young investigator grants to support early career-researchers.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
The number one challenge is that scientists are not well informed of careers beyond academia. Professorial positions are extremely competitive, and yet, many researchers are not trained for positions in other sectors such as industry, consulting and teaching. We need to make training for our PhD students and postdocs more holistic so that they can apply their skills other than in academia and use science to benefit society.
The other big challenge is that scientists are still primarily being judged based on the journals where their papers are published. There is nothing wrong for award or job selection committee to want candidates with publications in high impact journals, but institutions should also consider factors like mentoring, outreach and even diversity initiatives by candidates. There are ongoing efforts to change that evaluation culture in Europe and North America, and I hope that the momentum can motivate similar movements in Asia and the rest of the world.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
Because of my strong interest in science and outreach, I would have likely ended up in a job where I practice science and interact with people. Some possibilities include being a science communicator where I can learn and write about science while interacting with scientists.
- What do you do outside of work to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?
I enjoy using the gym. The main goal of my research is to promote health and exercise is one way to practice what I believe in. Exercising helps me destress and refresh my mind. Lately, I have also begun cycling and hiking with my friends. It’s quite amazing how nature can make one feel so at ease just by its sheer scale.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would want to solve the problem of aging-induced diseases. This is a very greedy goal because it practically includes most chronic diseases like cardiovascular health, diabetes, cancer and mental health.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Asia is a rapidly growing continent where getting into and excelling in research will become increasingly competitive. My advice to aspiring researchers is to put themselves out there—partake in science competitions and internships, and learn from the best in their respective fields. Be proactive in seeking learning opportunities.
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; Photo: Andy Tay.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.